Saturday, November 26, 2005

Writing tests that game the system

When tests are involved, one generally thinks that gaming the system means figuring out how to pass the test without having the quality that the test is designed to measure. This is an old and well-known strategy. Now, we have a second-level version of this effect. If one has control over the test, it isn't necessary to figure out how to beat it, just change it.

Who would set up a system in which the test taker is given the authority to re-write the test? Apparently Bush learned something from his early days in which all the tests he faced were re-written for his benefit.

According to a story in the New York Times
In Mississippi, 89 percent of fourth graders performed at or above proficiency on state reading tests, while only 18 percent of fourth graders demonstrated proficiency on the federal test. Oklahoma, North Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, Alaska, Texas and more than a dozen other states all showed students doing far better on their own reading and math tests than on the federal one.
How can that be? It's simple.

The No Child Left Behind law
requires states to participate in the National Assessment, [but] states are allowed to use their own tests in meeting the law's central mandate — that schools increase the percentage of students demonstrating proficiency each year. The law requires 100 percent of the nation's students to reach proficiency — as each state defines it — by 2014. … And because states that fail to raise scores over time face serious sanctions, there is little incentive to make the exams difficult, some educators say.
In other words, the law has the effect built into it. Like most other mechanical systems, it encourages those who must deal with the system to look at how the system works rather than what the system is intended to do. The system tells states to get your scores up or lose money. Since the system also allows states to write the tests that measure whether their scores are up, what else would one expect them to do except write tests that produce results that the system requires of them.

It's clear that this is a direct effect of the fact that the law is written in this way.
G. Gage Kingsbury, director of research at the Northwest Evaluation Association, a nonprofit group that administers tests in 1,500 districts nationwide, said states that set their proficiency standards before No Child Left Behind became law had tended to set them high.

"The idea back then was that we needed to be competitive with nations like Hong Kong and Singapore," he said. "But our research shows that since N.C.L.B. took effect, states have set lower standards."
I was glad to see that Inez Tenenbaum, state superindent of education in South Carolina, whom I supported in her failed race for the Senate last year, did not compromise.
South Carolina is a state that set world-class standards, Mr. Kingsbury said. … "Unfortunately it's put us at a great disadvantage," said Inez M. Tenenbaum. … "We thought other states would be high-minded too, but we were mistaken."

South Carolina's tough exams make it harder for schools there to show the annual testing gains demanded by the federal law.

This year less than half of the state's 1,109 schools met the federal law's benchmark for the percentage of students showing proficiency, a challenge that will get tougher each year. As a result, legislators are pushing to lower the state's proficiency standard, Ms. Tenenbaum said, an idea she opposes.
It's such an obvious and direct effect. If you can't meet the standard, but if you have control over the standard, change the standard.

Where do various factions line up on this issue?
Most corporate leaders favor national testing, said Susan Traiman, a director at the Business Roundtable, a group that represents corporate executives.

Opponents include liberal groups that dislike all standardized testing; the testing industry itself, which has found lucrative profits in writing new exams for all 50 states; and political conservatives who fiercely resist any intrusion on states' rights to control curricula and tests.
The positions of the liberal and conservative groups reflect political positions rather than positions based on this particular issue. That leaves the two business factions. Most businesses want strong testing because they want competent employees. The testing industry doesn't care about the consequences of the tests, they just want to maximize the amount of money they can make.

So here too, what's important is the effect, not the intent. In the case of the Business Roundtable, the effect for them is consistent with the intent, which allows them to take the more ethical position. But being businesses, what really matters is the bottom line — as the position of the testing industry illustrates.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Google Analytics

Google Analytics
Google Analytics tells you everything you want to know about how your visitors found you and how they interact with your site.
Google is selling this as a way to improve marketing. But think of all the data they will have if most of the websites in the world install this system. Google will know where people go and how they navigate through the web.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

A true "urban legend:" How to Recognize a Stroke

From Urban Legends Reference Pages: Medical (Strokelore)
A stroke victim may suffer permanent brain damage when people fail to recognize what's happening. Now, doctors say any bystander can recognize a stroke, simply by asking three questions:

  • ask the individual to smile.
  • ask him or her to raise both arms.
  • ask the person to speak a simple sentence.

If he or she has trouble with any of these tasks, call 911 immediately, and describe the symptoms to the dispatcher. Researchers are urging the general public to learn to ask these three questions quickly, to someone they suspect of having a stroke. Widespread use of this test could result in prompt diagnosis and treatment of a stroke, and prevent permanent brain damage.

You may want to pass this along.

Waxman on the new Medicare Drug Plans

From Committee on Government Reform Minority Office
Tuesday, November 22, 2005 -- When the new Medicare drug benefit was enacted, Republican leaders and the Bush Administration claimed that its complicated design would benefit seniors and protect federal taxpayers because private insurers could negotiate lower prices than the federal government. A new report by Rep. Waxman shows that these promises have not been met: the drug prices offered by ten leading Medicare drug plans are over 80% higher than federally negotiated prices and over 60% higher than Canadian prices. The Medicare drug plan prices are even higher than the prices available from and Costco stores.
See the report.

Friday, November 18, 2005

Secret to weight loss: exercise

United Press International reports that a
study in … the New England Journal of Medicine reported that patients on Meridia who exercised lost far more weight than those who only took the pill.

Hawkish Democrat Joins Call For Pullout While Bush continues to defend lying

The top House Democrat on military spending matters stunned colleagues yesterday by calling for the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq …

Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a decorated Vietnam War veteran, said many of those troops are demoralized and poorly equipped and, after more than two years of war, are impeding Iraq's progress toward stability and self-governance.
Does that change anything for the Bush administration? Of course not,
Republican leaders accused Democrats of siding with terrorists …

Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) declared: "Murtha and Democratic leaders have adopted a policy of cut and run. They would prefer that the United States surrender to the terrorists who would harm innocent Americans. To add insult to injury, this is done while the president is on foreign soil." [as if that makes any difference] …

Bush, traveling in South Korea, told reporters he agrees with Vice President Cheney's view that politicians who criticize the administration's handling of prewar intelligence are engaging in "dishonest and reprehensible" behavior. South Korea's Defense Ministry said today that it plans to bring home about one-third of its 3,200 troops from Iraq next year.

"I expect there to be criticism," Bush said. "But when Democrats say that I deliberately misled the Congress and the people, that's irresponsible.
Typical Bush. It's irresponsible to criticise someone for lying. Lying itself, however, is apparently just fine. When you can't defend your actions attack people who criticize you for taking them. It's worked so far. How long will we let him get away with it?

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Cheney lies again

I haven't had much time for blogging lately, but the current uproar about the Bush administration lies preceding the war seem worth noting. Cheney is the latest Bush administration official to attack the people who have been pointing out Bush administration lies. Here's a response from American Progress Action Fund.
President Bush and many members of his administration misled the American people on pre-war intelligence. It was either purposeful or the result of gross negligence. Blaming the people who point it out is Dick Cheney's way of distracting people from the truth. White House officials accuse their critics of not having the facts on their side, when in reality there are mountains of facts to support the critics' claims.
For the complete column click here. It includes a list of documented Cheney lies.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Good for the US Catholic Bishops.

In "A Culture of Life and the Penalty of Death" the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have issued a statement calling for the end to the death penalty. The introduction includes the following.
We reaffirm our common judgment that the use of the death penalty is unnecessary and unjustified in our time and circumstances.

Our nation should forego the use of the death penalty because

• The sanction of death violates respect for human life and dignity.

• State-sanctioned killing in our names diminishes all of us.

• Its application is deeply flawed and can be irreversibly wrong, is prone to errors, and is biased by factors such as race, the quality of legal representation, and where the crime was committed.

• We have other ways to punish criminals and protect society. The sanction of death when it is not necessary to protect society undermines respect for human life and dignity.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Alito, a conservative, but not an ideologue

According to a story in the New York Times, which confirms other accounts I've seen, Alito is smart, conservative, and intellectually honest.
At Princeton, classmates recall, Samuel Alito welcomed the arrival of women on campus shortly after starting his studies there. 'We were quite pleased to see the change,' said Clyde E. Rankin, a lawyer in Manhattan who was a classmate. Later, Mr. Alito helped several classmates write a report supporting a right to privacy that extended to one's bedroom.

But one fellow student recalled that Mr. Alito advised against canceling campus activities to protest the Vietnam War, arguing it would limit people's right to go on with their lives. 'People are understating how deeply conservative he is - deeply in his bones,' said the classmate, Samuel L. Lipsman.
That's probably the best we can hope for from Bush. If he and Roberts are both smart, personally conservative, and intellectually honest, perhaps they will help ground the court. Let's hope so.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

If she can't come to me, I just want to keep her safe

If passed, Proposition 73 would amend the California constitution by adding an additional section to Article 1. It would require that a physician provider (or his or her representative) notify, with some exceptions, one parent or legal guardian of a pregnant unemancipated minor at least 48 hours before performing an abortion on that minor. It would also add to the California Constitution language to the effect that abortions "cause the death of the unborn child, a child conceived but not yet born."

It seems to me that there are a couple of issues.
  • Is it reasonable for parents to want to be involved in their children's lives? Of course. Can government-mandated notification solve the problem of dysfunctional families? Clearly the answer is "No."

    So what will this constitutional amendment do? Apparently the idea is that in some cases it will allow parents to forcibly prevent their teen-age daughters from getting abortions. It's not clear why people believe that this will work. But that seems to be the hope.

    It amazes me that people how tend to think of the government as a negative force in the world—taxes are bad; government programs are bad; etc.—believe that government can solve the problem of faulty family communication by passing a law. But then a lot of people can't seem to think very clearly about certain issues.

  • Is this really a stealth attempt to enshrine in the constitution the notion that abortion is murder? Clearly it is. This is not just an initiative. It is a constitutional amendment. Furthermore, it does not just mandate parental notification, it puts into the constitution wording to the effect that abortion terminates the life of "an unborn child." I am not entirely unsympathetic with the notion that a fetus may at some stage deserve to be treated as a human being. But that is a much more complicated issue than asking people to make that decision as a by-product of an unsound constitutional amendment.
For more information on No-on-73, see Campaign for Teen Safety.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bush does something subtle (for Bush)

Normally one doesn't associate subtlety with President Bush. But his nomination of Samuel Alito is quite different from how he usually approaches issues. The standard Bush approach to nearly anything is iron-fisted forcefulness. Of course he lies whenever he finds it in his interest to do so. But that's just a tactic. One always knows what he wants. And when he succeeds, which has been most of the time, it is usually as a result of force, discipline, and power. Nominating Alito is completely different. As the San Francisco Chronicle points out
Samuel Alito Jr. has the most judicial experience of any U.S. Supreme Court candidate since Benjamin Cardozo in 1932, and the most conservative judicial record of any candidate since Robert Bork in 1987.
This is no stealth nominee. Alito is radical right red meat with a record a mile long. Alito wasn't nominated to get confirmed. He wasn't even nominated to assuage the Bush base. Bush nominated Alito as a clever political move. By nominating Alito, Bush accomplishes two things. Not only is the radical right appeased, but Bush puts the Democrats on the spot. He forces them to stand up for what they claim to defend.

It may be that some moderate Republicans will be uncomfortable enough with Alito to refuse to back him. But I doubt it. The Republican Mafia is strong enough to enforce discipline within the party's ranks. It will be up to the Democrats to stand up against Alito. And that means filibuster, even in the face of the so-called nuclear option. Do the Democrats has the guts to do that? I sure hope so. But judging from what I've heard so far and from how they've caved in previously (all of Bush's radical right nominees have been confirmed), I have my doubts.

Bush wins either way. If the Democrats block Alito, Bush can turn to his right wing and say that someone with such an open reactionary record can't be confirmed. He can then justify his nomination of Meyers and pick a Harriet Meyers clone. On the other hand, if the Democrats cave in, Bush and his reactionary supporters get control over the Supreme Court.

So this nomination is different. It isn't the standard Bush tactic of forcefully going out and taking what he wants. It doesn't appear subtle at all. Alito is a reactionary with a long reactionary record. But just because that's who Alito is, this is quite subtle. Savor the moment, this is as subtle as Bush gets.