Robert Samuelson and Why The Washington Post Deserves to Go Broke

Robert Samuelson has a penchant for willingly misinterpreting data. Time was, the newspaper bidness considered that to be a bad thing. Given his track record on Social Security, which led me to create the Samuelson Unit, it should be no surprise whatsoever that Samuelson screws up educational data.
Bob Somerby, rightfully offended by Samuelson’s false claim that students have made no educational gains over the last forty years, asks, “Does Robert Samuelson hate black kids? It’s always possible he doesn’t–but he certainly seems to enjoy misstating their academic gains.”

Among 17-year-olds, black students gained 29 points in reading during the period in question. This is massively larger than the one-point gain Samuelson chose to highlight, referring to the score gain recorded by 17-year-olds as a whole. And according to a rough rule of thumb which is rather widely applied, ten points on the NAEP scale is roughly equal to one academic year. If we apply this rough rule of thumb to those reading scores, the average black 17-year-old in 2008 was three years ahead of his peers from 1971! And by the way: These gains were recorded even as drop-out rates declined, a fact which Samuelson understands, as can be seen from a passage he includes later in his column… In other words, black students recorded this large score gain even as a larger percentage of the 17-year-old population was being tested, a change which would be expected to lower the average score. (As drop-out rates decline, this would typically mean that more kids were being tested from the lower end of the scale.)

Samuelson is technically correct in that scores haven’t really increased, but there’s a very simple reason for that: the composition of students was not the same in 2008 as it was in 1971. Black and Latino students score lower, and they made up a much larger percentage of the total student population in 2008 than they did earlier. So the national scores, when demography isn’t accounted for, haven’t really budged. If, however, you look within various groups, there have been large gains, as Somerby details*.
In short, Samuelson is being willfully ignorant. In fact, looking at the NAEP presentation (pdf), one has to engage in some serious mental gymnastics to declare a supposed lack of gains. Granted, for Samuelson, this deception is nothing new. If he’s willfully ignorant about the elderly and the disabled, why should we be surprised about throwing children into the mix? But the Washington Post‘s business model appears to be based on providing misinformation to readers.
Not sure how that’s supposed to work.
Thank goodness we have bloggers….
*I would note that scores over the last decade haven’t risen as fast as they did in the previous decades. The 70s – 80s burst, to a considerable extent, can be chalked up to lead removal efforts and other public health measures (keep in mind, there’s a time lag). In the 1990s, we had fewer kids living in poverty.

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1 Response to Robert Samuelson and Why The Washington Post Deserves to Go Broke

  1. Kevin – I am a 1st year PhD student in the Immunology department. at Harvard. I want to be a white-bearded intellectual atop an ivory tower when I grow up, but I am genetically incapable of growing facial hair.
    Kevin says:

    OT, but I wasn’t sure if you got my e-mail. I’m part of a Harvard grad student group called Science in the News that gives free science lectures in Boston that are aimed at a general audience. Since you’re local, and this might be up your alley, I was wondering if you’d be interested in promoting it.
    (And sorry for the spam)

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