Jewish World Review Oct. 29, 2003 / 3 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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Spinning education

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | You want to know what liberal bias and media spin are? Try a headline in the San Francisco Chronicle of October 25th: "California School Rankings Improve."

According to education officials quoted in the story, an "unprecedented rise" in test scores has been achieved by "shifting away from a nationally normed test and toward exams that measure what children are being taught in the classroom."

In other words, when school children in California were taking the same tests as children in other states, their results were lousy. But, now that we have our own test, results are much better.

If you or I or anyone else could make up his own test, wouldn't we all turn out to be geniuses?

The idea of gearing the test toward what is being taught in California schools is turning things upside down. The whole reason for giving tests is to find out whether students and schools are up to standards. Obviously, if California schools teach drivel and there is drivel on the tests, everybody looks good.

One of the reasons it is so hard to hold schools accountable for results is that the education establishment wants to doctor the tests to make what they are doing look good. When the tests consist of real math, real science, etc., that is when "educators" cry out against having to "teach to the test."

Virtually everywhere in life you have to gear your preparation toward what the particular test might be in a particular field. A football coach may have theories that sound great, but if his team keeps getting beaten by five touchdowns, he has failed the test.

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A business may be run by someone who is considered a financial genius but, if losses run into the millions, quarter after quarter, that business is headed for bankruptcy court. It fails the test.

Education is one of many things that California looks at upside down. As the upbeat news item in the San Francisco Chronicle says: "Over the years, the state has weaned itself from the national test and brought in new tests that match up with what experts say California kids should know."

In other words, since we can't lick 'em, we'll stop joining 'em. Anyone can have an undefeated record by not competing.

And just who are these "experts" on what "California kids should know"? There are no standards that anyone has to meet to be called an "expert," any more than there are any standards that anyone has to meet to be called a "consumer advocate" or a "community leader."

These are basically people who toot their own horns and market their own panaceas. Yet the media treat these titles as if they really meant something.

Education "experts" are a dime a dozen — and are over-priced at that. These "experts" are a major part of the reason why American school children lag behind children in other countries on international tests.

How surprised should we be when the same education gurus whose fads and fashions reign in California schools say that what the children should be tested on is their absorption of these fads and fashions, rather than anything so mundane as the three R's or science?

Despite these attempts to paint the results on these new and special tests as some kind of vindication of the public school system, there is a very revealing statistic in this news story whose implications apparently escape the reporter entirely.

While 26 percent of California's elementary schools scored above the level considered "excellent," only 14 percent of middle schools did and just 7 percent of high schools.

Other tests reported elsewhere show a similar pattern. Young schoolchildren in the United States score better, relative to their peers in other countries, but fall progressively further behind the longer they stay in school.

What this shows is that American children are not innately less intelligent but that the American school system leaves them falling further and further behind the longer they stay in our pubic schools.

That is the same pattern in California schools, despite all the self-congratulation and the media spin.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)

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