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18th April

First Published in The New York Sun, April 18, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Mayor La Guardia was famous for his insistence on high levels of integrity on the part of the police. In those days, long before computers and CompStat were even dreamed of, lore has it that precinct commanders made themselves look good by “assigning” complaints to “Detective McCann.”

Detective McCann was slang for the precinct’s garbage can. With the departure of LaGuardia from City Hall in 1946, official tolerance of crime grew, along with the political power of organized crime figures such as Frank Costello. So to paint a rosy picture of the deteriorating situation to a concerned public, Detective McCann became busier than ever.

New York’s crime statistics became so untrustworthy that by 1949 the Federal Bureau of Investigation refused to publish them due to their unreliability. These days, crime statistics compiled here in Gotham are well regarded, accepted without question by federal authorities.

Our education statistics are another matter. It is not J. Edgar Hoover and his G-Men who are cracking down, but Secretary Spellings at the education department.

In many regards the manipulation of test scores and graduation rates is worse than the Detective McCann scam of the 1930s and 1940s. Instead of failing to report the theft of property, mostly commodities that can be replaced, the theft today is of the educational opportunities of our children, something uniquely irreplaceable.

Secretary Spellings is charging that graduation rates - including those in New York State - are routinely inflated. She is proposing a national standard for measuring these rates, which would allow for a real comparison state-by-state on a single uniform yardstick.

New York’s Board of Regents should accept whatever federal standard is proposed by Secretary Spellings. The last time the Regents got involved in the controversy surrounding graduation rates, it was the recent disgraceful effort to broker a “settlement” between the state and city that allowed the city’s Education Department to add thousands of children to the roster of those it considers to be graduated from high school.

This may have made State Education Commissioner Richard Mills look better, and certainly brought smiles to the faces of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, who have been boasting of the resulting “increases” in graduation rates, but the bottom line is this: making adults look better or more successful does not make any student smarter, more ready for college, more employable, or more prepared to take his or her place as an educated citizen.

With two new Regents recently appointed from the Bronx and Brooklyn, both with on-the-ground experience as educators, the Board has an opportunity to usher in an era of high standard. We can go the way of another state, Massachusetts. We could be prepared for some bad news in the short term when we bite the bullet and admit the truth about the crisis in our schools, but position ourselves to fix what is broken.

In Massachusetts, the result has been America’s highest scores on the National Assessment of Education Progress exams. And yet a strange thing happened - despite the huge gains that have sparked renewed national interest in instructional reform, Governor Patrick has proposed a politically expedient rollback of the tough standards.

This is why shifting the burden of data collection and analysis away from the states and to the federal government - as we do in so many other areas to good effect - is sound public policy.

Imagine if the census were administered by the 50 states. Would anyone be surprised if some states added phantom residents to increase representation or the share of federal aid? This is exactly what the states are doing with high school graduation rates and standardized test scores. “Phantom graduates” are added to make states appear to be in compliance with No Child Left Behind mandates, as are inflated standardized test scores. Detective McCann would be proud.

Allowing the national government to do what it does well, gathering the data, would free the voters and parents to use the reliable yardstick of NAEP and a new federal high school graduation formula to demand the instructional changes that are necessary.

National polls repeatedly show that parents (as well as the population at large) recognize that something is wrong with our schools. At the same time they support their own local schools, no matter how dismal. Wouldn’t it be helpful to all concerned if those opinions were based on real test results and real graduation rates, instead of the fantasies of self-serving politicians?

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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