Sunday, November 08, 2009

The Kids Are Alright

Remember that survey from a while back that claimed that Oklahoma high school seniors are Teh Stoopid? The one that claimed that only 23 percent of them could name George Washington as the first president? Well, Nate Silver's been on the case, and has apparently discovered that the pollster, Strategic Vision LLC, was just making shit up.

According to Oklahoma Rep. Ed Cannaday, he administered the exam to every high school in his rural eastern Oklahoma district, and the results were much, much better than the ones Strategic Vision reported. The number of students who could identify America's first president is 98%, not 23%. Only two questions - the number of judges on the Supreme Court, and the length of senators' terms - got correct responses from under 70% of students.

I can't remember if I posted on this or not, but this is the kind of story that gets around the blogosphere and can really do some damage. People read this and it fits into a narrative of how kids are getting dumber and less politically involved, that our country's going to shit, etc etc. The truth is that kids aren't stupid, that for the most part they are informed and capable citizens.

What confuses me is why Strategic Vision would make up those numbers. The poll, it seems, was commissioned by the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs, who Silver describes as a "conservative-leaning think tank." But it seems to me that liberals have more of an interest in such numbers than conservatives, since such a poll could easily be used to justify increased government spending on education. Why would conservatives want a poll that shows that high school seniors are leaving schools without any knowledge? How do the results of this poll help conservatives? Silver doesn't explain this - I wish he would, because I'm at a loss.

Update: A commenter on the FiveThirtyEight thread, who works as the communications director for the Oklahoma Democratic Party, explains:
There has been an ongoing Republican-led legislative fight to dismantle public schools and essentially create a charter school system instead. Pushing the notion that public schools are failing would help their misguided argument. I still don't doubt that certain GOP legislators will quote the SV results on the floor next session, sadly.
That's certainly plausible - these results would seem to suggest that the schools are failing. But the results could easily be interpreted as an impetus to support increased funding for public schools. So these data, in and of themselves, aren't uniquely useful to conservatives if that's the case.

Note that I doubt OCPA is responsible for cooking the data. SV probably wanted numbers that would play well so OCPA would come back to them for other results. Note also that Cannaday is a Democrat - if the bizarre nature of OK politics means that conservatives want bad numbers while liberals want good ones, Cannaday's survey numbers might be a bit on the high side. Wouldn't explain the entire discrepancy, of course, but Cannaday's numbers might be a little high.


Anonymous said...

Wanna try passing this 8th grade test within the time allotted?

Then get back to me on the lack of dumbing down of students.

Jeff said...

One of those subjects (orthography) doesn't exist anymore. Grammar isn't taught as rigorously anymore, so I'll give you that just because our emphasis in school tends to be more on composition and less on learning rules. But history, geography, and math? Discard the obsolete questions and it's still standard 8th-grade knowledge.

The math stuff is actually easier than the stuff I learned in 8th grade - the closest thing to 8th-grade algebra is the interest stuff. (Of course, they didn't have calculators, thus the absurdly long amount of time.) The only history question I'd expect anyone to have an issue with in 8th grade is the open-ended causes of the Revolution thing, and I think your average 8th-grade probably knows that too. Geography's a little more esoteric, but I know I learned basic weather stuff and random place names in 8th grade too. Aspinwall just didn't happen to be one of them.

The main difference between this exam and ours? Practicality. An 8th-grader in 1895 would have needed weather knowledge to be an effective farmer (remember this is Kansas). Interest calculations are needed for anyone who has loans out from the bank, like farmers. And I wish schools nowadays taught stuff like check writing and balancing your checkbook, but that stuff's not exactly beyond 8th-grade knowledge...

Jeff said...

I guess we've rolled orthography and grammar into an all-purpose English class that teaches reading comprehension too. We've de-emphasized grammar and usage rules (I think what this exam calls "orthography" is what we refer to as "usage," as in word usage) and emphasized writing and understanding prose...

Mike said...

Your commenter made the point I was going to make. My immediate assumption was that the source of the original poll was conservative in nature. You may have inadvertently revealed your bias when you said that the fake data could easily be used to increase government education spending, whereas my first thought was that it could be used to argue government handling of schools has failed. :)

As a product of public schools, I concede they aren't exactly superb (and if anything, I'd argue the children they fail most are the gifted ones), but this whole "public schools suck" mentality still bothers me. The bottom line is that having a public education system is better than not having one. Back in 1895, what percentage of kids even had a formal education?

Anonymous said...

I focused in on this question in an article I wrote (we is more smarter ...):

4. District No 33 has a valuation of $35,000. What is the necessary levy to carry on a school seven months at $50 per month, and have $104 for incidentals?

Do note the length of time of the school year and the material they were required to know. Also note that calculators were expressly verboten when I was in primary and secondary school.

Heck, I went to Starbucks, ordered a beverage, paid with a 20, and the hs grad girl had to void out the order and redo it because she put in the register I paid with a 10. She couldn't figure correct change on her own, even with that minor difference. She (a hs grad) could not figure the difference in what the register said change for 10 was and what change for 20 would be!

And the English language? Come on, just look at the blogosphere! Homophone confusion, improper apostrophe placement (day's is NOT plural of day) and tell me we are just as well educated as high school grads today, compared to 8th grade grads of yesteryear!

You have to be outside your mind!

Anonymous said...

I haven't even bothered to do the math to that question, but I suspect the mills of that levy would be hugely smaller (heh) than the mills on which every public school is operating today. Note: mills is rational and not static; therefore, mills flows with the economy. Inflationary activity has no impact on mills.

Jeff said...

I guess a 28-year-old engineering grad student is a far sight from an average 8th-grader, but still, you can get close to an answer to that question in your head, so it can't be that hard. (Off the top of my head, it's 1.297%-ish; Capt. Calculator gives me 1.29714286.)

Having read some downright atrocious lab reports in my TA days, I'll give you the grammar thing. Regarding the girl at Starbucks, though - remember, we're not eighth-graders anymore. People tend to forget things if they don't use them. The girl at Starbucks may not have seen a math equation in three years. I know enough smart people who don't know how to add 10 but would be able to dash off a three-page essay on Foucault's philosophy in ten minutes flat.

People know what they use and what they've studied recently, and forget the other stuff. Isn't that the entire point of Jeff Foxworthy's "Are You Smarter than a Fifth Grader" game show? I remember having all the African capitals memorized at age 10. (Don't ask.) Now? I could probably name 50-60% ('course, it doesn't help that the Ivory Coast and Nigeria have moved their damn capitals). The kids taking this exam would have just studied this stuff. I studied it, what now, 15 years ago? Showing this exam to an adult and saying "see how tough this is?" doesn't really mean anything. If you get blank stares from 8th-graders... okay, you have a point. But I don't think you would, at least not on the math/history/geography section.

(Of course, you'd have to replace "Aspinwall" with "Panama" and get rid of Hecla because it doesn't really exist as a town anymore.)

(A further caveat. I went to private school through 8th grade... but my school's curriculum actually put me behind when I went to public high school, and so I butchered my way to a 2.7 first quarter of 9th grade.)

Jeff said...

Hmmm, guess we calculate property taxes in different units in NC than y'all do. So 12.97 mills then, assuming a mill is what it sounds like.

Anonymous said...

Most of the students in my 9th grade Geo-Politics class (like 85 percent of them) couldn't find the Mississippi River (or spell it correctly) on a US map. They also couldn't name 3 states that bordered Ohio (PA, WV, KY, IN, MI) much less give their postal abbreviations. 12-ish years ago, I took my daughter out to eat in Mansfield. I pointed out a particularly egregious billboard (very big sign). It advertised "SOFA'S". I asked my daughter what possession of the sofa that particular company was trying to sell.

Anonymous said...

"what possession of the sofa was that particular ..."

Jeff said...

I pointed out a particularly egregious billboard (very big sign). It advertised "SOFA'S". I asked my daughter what possession of the sofa was that particular company trying to sell.

Sounds like something my dad would have said. Or me, now. I think every time I see someone screw up "it's" versus "its" a little part of my brain explodes, which means I'm cleaning things up a lot.

When I was seven or so, I noticed a sign up in a packaging store advertising that they ship "akward" materials. I was the only person to point it out up to that point, and the store had been there for a couple of years. They kept the sign up, and last time I went into that store (five or six years ago) they told me I was still the only person to have noticed.

Mike said...

The one that's been getting me at work lately is "affect" vs. "effect". I think I had to correct the statement "This will have no affect on performance" about 20 times in one document.

Wow, Jeff, I didn't think anyone did worse than I did at TJ freshman year. Kudos to you.

Anonymous said...

Well, I guess that sign was very fitting, in an akward sort of way. ;)