NYT Race & Testing Piece Contradicts Itself, Relies On Basically Two Anecdotes, & Ignores Polling Data From Parents Of Color

It’s always curious when a beat reporter or editor shows up in the opinions section of a news outlet. Did the piece not meet the requirements of a traditional news story? Did the journalist have something burning on their minds that warranted a temporary pass from the strictures of “objective” journalism? 

This weekend’s NYT piece (Race and the Standardized Testing Wars) is an example. The other that comes to mind is Sarah Carr’s LA Times oped critiquing the Vergara lawsuit from a few weeks ago (Making it easier to fire teachers won’t fix American education).

However, while the LA Times/Carr commentary came and went without any objections (that I know of), the NYT opinion/analysis (penned by Kate Taylor) raised a couple of concerns right off the bat.

For example, Taylor writes:

“Yet as testing season unfolds this year, the debate is becoming murkier. More minority educators, parents and students are criticizing the tests, opening a rift with civil rights groups and black and Hispanic educators who support testing, like Secretary of Education John B. King Jr….”<

And, a little while later:

“While there is little evidence thus far of a major groundswell of nonwhite, urban students opting out of testing, the battle lines are clearly shifting.”

First and foremost, which is it? Is there some sort of notable change in support for testing among parents of color or isn’t there? The headline and the premise of the piece seem to be that there’s been an increase, but the “little evidence” concession suggests otherwise. These instances where stories contradict themselves are all too often, and extremely unfortunate. 

More substantively, where’s the evidence that “more” persons of color are opposed to testing (than last year, presumably)? 

The Seventy-Four’s Matt Barnum was among the first to note the possible flaws that Taylor’s piece reveals: He tweeted “This claim is doing a lot of work here, but is there any evidence it’s uh true?”

Indeed, Politico already reported opt out advocates’ desire to diversify their ranks — but not any particular or widespread successes in doing so.

Progressive outlets like Mother Jones and the Chicago Reader have written similar pieces, based largely on strung together anecdotes and anti-testing advocates’ claims.

In the NYT piece, two examples are given — a Baltimore student protest earlier this month and a Philadelphia group of parents featured in EduShyster’s podcast, Have You Heard, which is affiliated with The Progressive. But that’s it for hard evidence.

After that, we get competing advocate quotes. NYC teacher Jose Luis Vilson is quoted as a testing critic, along with Annenberg’s Warren Simmons. DC schools head Kaya Henderson and the EdTrust’s Sonja Brookins Santelises are quoted as proponents.

The lack of evidence provided seems strange since at least some opt-out numbers have come in over the past few weeks. Opt-out numbers remain high in some places like Long Island NY, for example. But recent reports like this one from New Orleans don’t suggest that POC parent opt out numbers are on the rise. 

All the more mystifying is this lack of evidence given that there is also some polling data available on these kinds of questions, allowing reporters to move past anecdotes and advocate quotes.

“This year, for the first time, we’re able to disaggregate the PDK annual poll results by Black/White/Hispanic,” notes PDK head Joshua Starr. The results show some clear differences between demographic groups re: attitudes towards standardized tests.”

According to one writeup of the PDK results, “a majority of Blacks respondents said parents should not be allowed to excuse a child from taking standardized tests, and they overwhelmingly said they would not let their own child opt out.”

In addition, a recent survey of caregivers of color by the Civil Rights Leadership Council found that “In our work in communities, we have found that the education debates conducted inside the Beltway – from testing and No Child Left Behind to Common Core and the appropriate role of the federal government – don’t resonate with new majority parents or reflect the priorities they have for their own families. The truth is, these debates have simply failed them.”

Some journalists like to say that three examples makes a trend, but stringing together a handful of convenient anecdotes is not really not sufficient — especially when there are just as many counterexamples available and also contradictory polling data.

Not everyone is so concerned. Former Obama USDE official Joanne Weiss described the piece as “A very balanced look at race and the standardized testing wars.” Former AEI staffer Max Eden wrote “There is little evidence. But there are at least a few sourced quotes.”

According to a NYT spokesperson, this practice isn’t entirely new: “The Times began including analysis written by news reporters when the Week in Review section was redesigned / relaunched as Sunday Review in June 2011…. Kate’s piece is well-reported and provides exactly the kind of insightful analysis that readers of Sunday Review expect. The portions you quote are based on her reporting.”

Related posts: Education Researcher, Expert Source, Media Critic;  A Nagging Disconnect Between Vivid Anecdotes & Underlying Data.

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.