Report cards preview shaky

Without evidence, Post leaps to conclusion of unreliability

Dec. 17, 2005

by David Kopel

More so than with most government reports, the Colorado Department of Education's annual School Accountability Reports are subject to media scrutiny. For example, this year there were several well-written stories showing that, because districts vary so widely in reporting policies, comparing school violence levels between districts is difficult.

Also useful have been stories contrasting the definitions of academic adequacy in the state report cards with the looser definitions in the federal No Child Left Behind reports.

Unfortunately, the day before the Colorado report cards were to be released, The Denver Postpublished a preview article by Robert Sanchez that made broad accusations with insufficient evidence.

Sanchez warned that parents reading the report cards might "come away with more head-scratching questions than answers." The reason was that of the "50-plus bits of school-accountability information offered . . . more than half are subject to human error or falsification." The subheadline repeated the "more than half" theme.

The headline writer accurately summarized Sanchez's attitude, by putting scare quotes, which usually denote sarcasm or irony, around the word "grades" in the headline " 'Grades' leave room for doubts".

But Sanchez's theme was as misleading as a media critic announcing "More than half of the items in the Postare subject to human error or falsification." The fact is, more than half of almost any publication is theoretically "subject to human error or falsification."

Sanchez wrote that "Unidentified districts in the past have given inaccurate data," and implied, but did not explicitly say, that "state officials" were the source for the statement. The article should have named the source, or explained why the source could not be named. He also should have specified whether inaccurate data are common or are rare - or stated that his source would not or could not supply such information.

In two paragraphs of the 16-paragraph article, Sanchez noted the genuine problem of violence data. He also pointed out that some dropouts are concealed by being listed as transfers, a problem that has been exposed in previous articles. Also, different calculation methods make it possible to compare student-teacher ratios within a district, but not between districts.

All three issues were important, but Sanchez never provided evidence for his grand leap from three specific problems to the article's extravagant claim that the state report cards are so riddled with error and falsification as to not really be "grades," and that the report cards were so flawed that they could give parents "more . . . questions than answers."

Disclosure: The current state "School Accountability Reports" are a more sophisticated version of the "Report Card on Schools" which the Independence Institute created in 1995, and distributed until the state system was created.

After all the attention the mainstream media, including the Denver dailies, gave to the execution of the unrepentant quadruple- murderer Tookie Williams, it would be nice if the media focused on a man on death row who is actually innocent.

That man is Cory Maye, currently on death row in Mississippi. In brief, the home occupied by Maye and his baby daughter was violently invaded at 11 p.m. one night by three men. Maye grabbed his handgun and fatally shot one of the invaders.

The invaders turned out to be police officers executing a search warrant based on uncorroborated information supposedly from a "confidential informant." Maye had no criminal record, and the police initially found no drugs, but later claimed to have found a tiny quantity of marijuana.

Maye's plight has gotten major attention in the blogosphere since Radley Balko of www.the broke it in early December. The superb Denver criminal law blog TalkLeft has also helped advance the story.

Last week, a letter writer criticized me for praising the Post'scrossword puzzles. He concluded by calling me "The Tin Man of media criticism. If he only had a brain."

If the writer had remembered The Wonderful Wizard of Oz,he would have known it was the Scarecrow who didn't have a brain. Sophisticated readers realize that both the Scarecrow and the Tin Man were always intelligent and loving; all the wizard could give them was recognition of the virtues they already possessed.

If you're still shopping for Christmas or Hanukkah presents, I recommend Horns, Hogs & Nixon Comingby Postsports columnist Terry Frei, which retells the story of the greatest college football game of all time, the 1969 national championship showdown between Texas and Arkansas, with President Nixon and future Presidents Bush and Clinton all involved. Also by Frei is the brand-new Third Down and a War to Go: The All-American 1942 Wisconsin Badgers,a "greatest generation" story.


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Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @

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