Messenger NAEP - or Charles Murray Channelling the Left

May 5, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

How fitting in these weeks of final exams to be reminded that tests are irrelevant – at least if you don’t like the results. They are the messenger who brings bad news. But will killing the messenger solve the problem?

I remember the good old days when academics railed at standardized tests like the SAT. If the tests showed group differences – between black and white, male and female – that just showed that the tests were biased and should not be used.

Now, Charles Murray, the man on the right that everyone on the left loves to hate,* has joined the anti-test chorus and, on the Times op-ed page today, he’s singing lead. Murray, like most conservatives, is a supporter of charter schools. He’s badmouthing standardized tests because they show that charter schools do no better than traditional public schools at educating students, especially the kinds of kids who are most in need of effective schools.

The volume of studies on school “choice” – comparing charter schools and voucher programs to traditional public schools – is now large. Most commonly, these find no difference in the progress of students in charters and those in publics. A few charters do better; a greater number underperform their public counterparts.

Rather than dismissing the research as merely wrong or turning up the volume on the few studies favorable to charters and ignoring the rest, as do some conservatives I know, Murray goes radical. What these studies really show, he says, is that tests don’t matter.
Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another?
I’m not going to search through Murray’s oeuvre to see how many times he has cited test scores as meaningful or where he stood on No Child Left Behind. But I am going to guess that if the results had been different, if research showed that charters consistently outperformed publics on standardized tests, Murray would be putting up billboards praising NAEP and the rest.

But Murray goes way beyond the idea that tests are irrelevant. He says that when it comes to teaching kids to read and do math, the schools themselves are irrelevant.
Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.
Murray is deliberately ignoring one inconvenient fact: that some teachers and some schools consistently do a better job of teaching hard-to-teach populations. But instead of wanting more effort to figure out just what those teachers and schools do so that others can also do more of it, Murray denies that they have any meaningful effect.

What Murray mostly wants is not good education, though he would probably not oppose such improvement. What he wants is charter schools. Since test scores that measure learning don’t support charters, Murray goes back to another song from the old left fake book – School as Ideology. The left used to complain – maybe it still does – that what schools really did was not so much teach subjects but indoctrinate kids into the dominant capitalist ideology so as to turn out a compliant labor force.

Right on, says Murray. But the dominant ideology, in his view, is now liberal and therefore to be avoided. Charter schools “would give parents a choice radically different from the progressive curriculum used in the county’s** other public schools.” Charters are a way for conservative parents to keep their kids out of the hands of the liberals – a sort of home-school away from home.

He has a point. If I lived in Texas, I might want the option of sending my kid to a state-funded charter school that included in the curriculum some of the arcane figures from America’s history that will now be excluded – people like Thomas Jefferson. Such choice would be welcome to middle-class parents like me and Murray, who are not much worried about our kids learning to read. But a choice of ideology is probably not high on the list of concerns of the parents whose kids are in schools where most of the students are years behind in reading and math.

* The mention of Murray’s name has been, for at least fifteen years now, a Pavlovian ringing of the bell curve, guaranteed to set lefties to frothing at the mouth. I actually used to admire Murray, at least for his writing. When a Marxist colleague asked me to review a manuscript she had written, a rather tendentious book on violence, I told her that she should try to write more like Murray – to present radical and probably offensive ideas in language that makes them seem calm and reasonable.

** Murray is referring to a specific charter proposal in the Maryland county where he lives, but for the argument he is making, he might just as easily have said country instead of county.

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