This is often true of the New York Post, which prides itself on humorous, tabloid-style headlines -- most famously, for example: "Headless Body Found in Topless Bar." It's also true of the New York Times, though for different reasons.
Both newspapers today appear to contradict each other, at least as far as the headlines:
"SAT Scores Hit Floor in Dramatic Plummet"
-- New York Post, August 26
"SAT Scores Hold Steady for '09, Panel Says"
-- New York Times, August 26
Can they both be true? Yes, as long as you are referring to different time periods. However, both headlines are still misleading in terms of the content of their respective accounts.
The Post makes the point that over a four-year period, from 2005 to 2009, SAT scores dropped by 13 points in reading, 18 points in math and 6 points in writing. On a percentage basis, these declines do not exceed 4 percent over the period. Not exactly "dramatic," though the trend is disturbingly increasing in the wrong direction.
The City Department of Education said this four-year negative trend is attributable to more students taking the exam, particularly lower-performing minority students, as larger numbers of such students are now on track to attend college. In 2009, 54 percent of minority students took the SATs, compared to 42 percent four years prior.
The problem with this contextual explanation is that as more minority students take the exam, the test results reveal that students in the City are not where they should be academically in terms of college readiness, as Jason Brooks of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability points out. This trend in the SAT results also contradicts the outcomes on the state exams showing more City students meeting and exceeding state standards. This contradictory trend between results on state exams from the SATs is further evidence that state exams were too easy and the product of grade inflation -- coincidentally occurring in a mayoral election year and/or as a legacy-builder from recently departed state education commissioner, Rick Mills.
What of the Times' story? The "steady" descriptor was used to show virtually no change in average scores in the three subject areas between 2008 and 2009. No real news there. More importantly, the Times did point out the ongoing gap in scores on terms of race (white v. minority students), household income levels, and education of parents.
These achievement gaps to me are the alarming story, yet the headline of "steady" suggests no such thing. [Note: the on-line version's headline now says "slight decline", while I'm referring to the print version.]
The upshot of all this is that SAT scores are neither dramatically falling, nor steady as she goes. Instead, scores are headed in the wrong direction; minority and poor students continue to do poorly on a city-wide basis over time; and that the jump in state exams this year ring more dubious.
A new state education commissioner and a new term for the New York City mayor provides the opportunity to face these issues head on. For starters, let's be sure about what's real and what isn't.
for The Chalkboard
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