Keep calm and continue testing [coverage]
As we head into the second year of Common Core assessment season (or third, if you count the initial field testing process), it’s probably a good time to look back at some of the challenges and issues that education reporters and editors faced covering this the last time around.
There are a number of problems identified over the past year — overdramatization, surface storytelling, decontextualized numbers, lazy use of language, and unbalanced speculation — that can and should be avoided in 2016.
OVERDRAMATIZATION: With testing as with many other issues, perhaps the biggest challenge for journalists is how to dramatize something that’s, well, not inherently dramatic, without ratcheting up the hype or hysteria too far.
Last year, as you may recall, I dinged the media for “over-emphasizing the extent of the conflict, speculating dire consequences based on little information, and over-relying on anecdotes and activists’ claims rather than digging for a broader sampling of verified numbers… Looking at recent national media coverage, you’d think the whole Common Core enterprise was about to come crashing down.”
SURFACE STORYTELLING: Another big challenge for reporters is capturing the hidden dynamics that are taking place behind the scenes, demographic and otherwise. Not all kinds of parents are equally concerned about overuse of standardized testing, for example. And it’s not just (or all) civil rights groups who favor annual testing — or all teachers who oppose it. Common Core testing is, like many other hot-button issues, a proxy battle between different groups and ideologies who are all trying to make schools better but disagree about how best to get it done. Readers deserve to understand this — and reporters should know it.
DECONTEXTUALIZED “OPT-OUT” FIGURES: A particular challenge that is bound to recur is how to cover the so-called opt-out movement, in which some parents and teachers call on each other to withdraw their children from annual testing. As noted last year in this Columbia Journalism Review piece (Common problems with Common Core reporting), journalists struggle to estimate the number of parents who might be opting out without using advocates’ figures (which in New York at least turned out to be much too high last year).
As I noted last year, “lack of timely information from districts and state education agencies that forces reporters to rely on anecdotes and advocates’ claims (about, say, opt-out numbers).” [Actually, I mis-stated the problem. Nobody forces reporters to do anything. They chose to use those figures.] “Claims about opt-out numbers need to be verified through official sources (even if it means calling districts individually, as some reporters and bloggers have done). Wherever possible, reporters should find some way to give numerical context (i.e., in percentage form) rather than raw numbers, whose significance is hard to grasp.”
LAZY LANGUAGE: “Readers can’t realistically be expected to know that “a small but growing number” could mean pretty much anything, that “across the nation” isn’t the same as nationwide, and that protests coming from “across the spectrum” doesn’t necessarily include moderate, middle-of-the-road organizations like principals’ associations,” is how I put it last year. Not much has changed. Ditto for estimating and describing the number of states that have “dropped” the Common Core tests. Eleven of the 12 states that “dropped” the official Common Core tests according to an especially problematic 2015 PBS NewsHour segment had replaced them with their own very similar exams.
UNBALANCED SPECULATION: Last but not least, there’s the issue of speculation. There’s no avoiding it, in education or anywhere else. Folks want to know what things mean, and what’s going to happen. The key is to avoid presenting only one kind of scenario, and instead try and give readers a reasonable range of possible outcomes. That’s something that a November WSJ Common Core notoriously failed to do (WSJ Common Core Story Over-Emphasizes Setbacks).
Here are some other posts written in the past few months about Common Core testing coverage. Study them well. Your mission should be to avoid these mistakes.