The Daily Howler Howls at Me

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 28, 2006; 10:54 AM

Bob Somerby, the energetic and insightful proprietor of The Daily Howler Web site , has accused me of leaving an important fact out of my Feb. 2 story in The Post on rising test scores at Alexandria's Maury Elementary School. I think he is right to complain, and I hope in my explanation I will shed more light on why the new system for rating schools is frustrating-- and yet better than the alternatives.

My story said Maury had the lowest passing rates in the city in 2004 on the state reading test, but managed to improve enough in last spring's tests to make AYP-- federalese for "adequate yearly progress"--the benchmark for schools under the No Child Left Behind law. I wrote the story to show how complex and confusing the No Child Left Behind assessment system was, with officials at the Virginia state education department having to make very subjective judgments about which schools met the standard and which did not.

Somerby is a careful reporter. I knew that the minute I saw that he spelled both my name, and the differently-spelled name of NBC talk show host Chris Matthews, correctly in the same issue of the Howler, something that many other publications have failed to do. Somerby thought the No Child Left Behind standards were absurd. Poking around the Alexandria schools' Web site, he found a fact about Maury that he felt proved it, and that I had not mentioned in my story.

The Web site shows that the passing percentage for third-graders in English at Maury the first time they took the test last spring was 27 percent, but the overall English passing rate for third- and fifth-grade English, after factoring in retests, was 92 percent. Somerby said Maury appeared to be two schools, the one in my story, with the headline "A Study in Pride, Progress," and a very different one on the Web site.

"Inside that low-income school only 27 percent of third-grade students passed that Reading/Language Arts test last year," Somerby said. "And no one could really be 'proud' of that score -- unless the kids at Maury don't count. Across the state of Virginia last spring, 77 percent of third-graders passed that very same test.

"One Maury School is a study in progress. The other Maury seems to be floundering. It seems to be a low-income school whose children need tons of help, not a front-page free ride from The Post, with a photo of a gorgeous child smiling.

"But which school is the real Maury School? The 'study in progress' described in the Post? Or the school whose scores are a study in failure? At this point, we simply can't tell you -- although we'd be likely to bet the ranch that the low score is more on the mark."

Somerby dug further, and soon got an explanation from Alexandria schools testing and assessment director Monte Dawson, my prime source on the story. The big jump, Dawson explained, came mostly from the fact that 12 of those third-graders retook the test and passed it, upping the passing rate considerably, but only because of a odd mathematical rule approved by the state school board in 2000. Somerby quoted Dawson's explanation:

"Remediation Recovery, which has been around since 2001, means that fourth grade students who failed the third grade test in 2004, got to retake the third grade test in 2005. Up until this year (2005), if they passed the third grade test, then they were included in the numerator only of the calculation to determine the third grade passing score. As illustration, if 4 out of 5 third grade students passed and 1 out of 5 fourth grade Remediation Recovery students passed, the passing percentage would be 100 percent."

In writing my story, I looked at the dozens of pages submitted in Alexandria's request for Maury to make AYP and did not see the 27 percent figure Somerby found on the school Web site. I am sorry I missed it because it illuminates an interesting part of the process, and fortifies the main point of my story -- that this is way too complicated for most of us to understand.

I reconstructed what happened with the help of Virginia state officials. When Maury's 19 third-graders took the English test the first time last spring, five passed and 14 did not. Of the 24 fifth-graders who took the English test, 22 passed. The school worked with the third-graders who did not pass it and gave them a retest, and 12 passed on that second try.

Counting third- and fifth-graders together, 62 percent passed the English test the first time. So how did we get to 92 percent passing rate for those two grades in the final tally?

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