If A, Then B? Showcase Web Chart Open to Question

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — June 18, 2003 2 min read
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For the casual visitor to the red-, white-, and blue-splashed home page of the Department of Education, the explanation of “Why No Child Left Behind Is Important to America” may appear to be a no-brainer.

A prominent graphic under that heading, which refers to the “No Child Left Behind” Act of 2001, illustrates the spike in federal education spending over the past few years. It then shows, with a flat line that slashes through the climbing spending bars, how the steady increases in federal funding since the original rendition of the law passed in 1965 have failed to improve reading achievement among 4th graders.

To the trained eye, though, the diagram may be viewed as incomplete or, worse, inaccurate.

“It’s a shading of the truth,” said David C. Berliner, a researcher at Arizona State University who often writes about what he sees as misuses of the National Assessment of Educational Progress exam results and other test data.

Few could dispute the growing allocations for programs under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Federal spending under the ESEA has risen from about $8 billion to more than $22 billion in the last 10 years. The trend in test scores may not be as clear- cut.

While average scores on the NAEP reading “trend” test for 9-year-olds, graded on a scale of zero to 500, have hovered in the 208-to-215 range since the 1970s, there have been small, but statistically significant, ups and downs not reflected on the Web graphic’s flat line.

The featured chart, Mr. Berliner said, also does not acknowledge the changes in student demographics over the years.

In fact, Mr. Berliner says, the small gain in reading achievement is something of a “miracle.”

“Even while the number of minority and non-English-speakers has gone up dramatically, achievement has stayed constant,” he said. And, he added, the average scores for aggregate groups, including white, black, and Hispanic students, have all gone up.

Echoes of 2000

Education Department officials, after recognizing “some inaccuracies” in an earlier version of the chart on the www.ed.gov site, made changes this month, according to spokesman David Thomas. The initial version, which had been featured on the site for more than a year, combined data from different NAEP reading tests, making some of the data confusing or inaccurate, some observers said.

“They are using the same chart to compare two different types of numbers,” said Alan E. Farstrup, the executive director of the Newark, Del.-based International Reading Association. “An unsophisticated viewer could be confused by that.”

President Bush has drawn protests in the past from political foes and testing experts for using similar data in campaign materials leading up to the 2000 presidential election.

A pamphlet highlighting Mr. Bush’s agenda for public schools made claims of an “education recession,” supporting his argument with a chart showing decreasing NAEP reading scores among 17-year-olds between 1992 and 1998, and referring to the big increases in federal education spending during that time.

But the way the scale was extended along one side of the chart, and included just a 5-point span on a 500-point scale, made it appear that the 2-point drop in scale scores for that age group represented at least a 40 percent decline. In reality, it was less than 1 percent.

Education Department officials are standing by the current illustration, for now.

“For now, this is the chart that people will have to refer to,” Mr. Thomas said in an interview. “If we find out it is inaccurate, I suspect we will update it again.”

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