High Stakes Testing

Bob Somerby notes that Merryl Tisch, New York state's new schools chancellor, is quoted today by the New York Times wondering if rising test scores are really all they're cracked up to be.  And he's appalled:

Let’s be fair to Tisch. She’s new to her post as head of the Board of Regents — although she’s served as a member of the board since 1996....That said, Tisch’s statement is quite remarkable.

“As a board, we will ask whether the test is getting harder or easier?” What the fig has the board been doing for the past thirteen years? To state the blindingly obvious, the question Tisch raises is well beyond basic; it makes no sense to compare test scores from one year to the next unless we know that the tests in question have remained equally difficult. And in New York City, this question was specifically raised by skeptical teachers at least as far back as 2005.

....As we’ve noted in the past: State education departments should be able to demonstrate that this year’s test is as hard as last year’s. If tests of this type have been competently devised, this shouldn’t be a matter of guesswork. State departments should have technical manuals which show the new tests are equally hard. For some time, we’ve noted that reporters at newspapers like the Times should be insisting on this.

Now see, because I'm a nicer guy than Bob I would have let this go with a halfhearted cheer that at least Tisch was bringing up a good question.  But that's because I'm such a squish.  (And also because I'm not entirely sold on these tests anyway.)  On the merits, though, Bob is right.

If you truly believe in the high-stakes testing mania — and plenty of people do — that's fine.  Maybe it will turn out to be a good idea.  But there's strong evidence on at least two scores.  First, that different states have wildly different standards on their tests, so comparing them to each other is hopeless.  Second, that there's very little correlation between improvements on state tests and improvements on the more reliable NAEP tests.  This suggests that a lot of state tests have in fact been steadily dumbed down to meet federal NCLB standards, so comparing them year-to-year is hopeless.

Now, the whole point of high-stakes testing is to provide us with hard, quantitative assessments of how our kids are doing.  You simply can't be a believer in this stuff and not care about whether the tests are meaningful from place to place and year to year.  And yet, as Bob says, this issue gets only an occasional mention each year before being quickly dropped down the memory hole until another year's test results come out and someone happens to casually mention it again.  It's almost enough to make you think that a lot of these folks are more interested in using tests as a political cudgel than they are in whether kids are actually learning something.  Almost.

The IMF says U.S. banks need $275 billion in new capital.  Tim Geithner says they need $75 billion.  Or, to be more accurate, that's what I said the IMF and Tim Geithner said.  James Surowiecki says I got it wrong:

The confusion here is understandable, but this is a mistake....The Fed’s estimate, as seen in the stress-test results, was that, as of the end of 2008, the nineteen biggest U.S. banks required $185 billion in new equity. That number is now $75 billion because, over the last four months, via things like restructuring, asset sales, and Citigroup’s conversion of preferred stock to equity, the banks have raised around $110 billion in equity. But the apples-to-apples comparison is that the I.M.F. estimate was $275 billion, the Fed’s $185 billion.

The I.M.F.’s estimate, though, is for the banking system as a whole, while the Fed’s is just for the nineteen biggest banks. Those banks have about two-thirds of the banking system’s assets, so if capital needs are distributed proportionally, then the Fed’s estimate suggests that the banking system needs just about, yes, $275 billion — a number that’s identical to the I.M.F. estimate.

Can we please fix the economy so I can go back to writing about simple stuff like rescuing the healthcare system and keeping the planet from turning into a cinder?  Thanks.

Friday's big stories were the April jobs report and the release of the Obama administration's "stress tests" for troubled banks. The jobs report showed the economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, fewer than economists expected and fewer than were lost in March. And even though they showed that US banks are undercapitalized by some $75 billion, the stress test results were "far more upbeat than many in the industry had feared," according to the New York Times. The White House and the main stream media are spinning both the stress tests and the jobs report as good news. But some observers aren't so sure. Our own Nomi Prins, a former banker herself, writes:

Despite Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner's declaration that the results are "reassuring," the banks are likely in worse shape than the tests suggest. Just because a bank avoided the capital penalty box doesn't mean it's healthy. Some, like Goldman Sachs, are investment banks that converted to bank holding companies last fall in order to access federal money, and received a two-year grace period to standardize their books with other banks. And some happen to enjoy a symbiotic relationship with the Fed, like JPMorgan Chase, whose last two takeovers (of Bear Stearns and Washington Mutual) were government-funded. JPMorgan Chase's stock was one of the biggest losers after TARP began, yet its tests indicated that it has somehow taken care of its capital needs just fine.

Are churchgoers nicer people?  After reading some recent polling showing that churchgoers are more likely to support torture, I find that a hard sell.  Still, Robert "Bowling Alone" Putnam says the answer is yes: in fact, churchgoers are so nice they even let people cut in line in front of them more often than others.

But does going to church cause you to be nice?  Or do nice people just like hanging out in churches?  Michelle Cottle reports:

Columnist E.J. Dionne (reading my mind) asked Putnam about the degree to which this phenomenon can be explained by the self-sorting joiners-are-joiners principle. After all, it's well established that people's personal relationships and social bonds in general are a huge predictor of how happy and, almost by definition, how engaged they are. Isolationism is good for neither the soul nor the community....Putnam acknowledged that it's tough to tease out such causal relationships. He did point to one aspect of their research that seemed to indicate that religious participation actively propels people up the niceness scale. By going back a year after first interviewing people and conducting a follow up, he and Campbell were able to track behavioral changes among interviewees who had, in the meantime, become more frequent churchgoers. In those cases, niceness indeed tended to rise with participation. 

....Coupled with Putnam's findings that young people today are significantly more secular than previous generations, this raises some troubling questions about our civic life going forward. Although, before any Jerry Falwell types start wagging their pious fingers, note that Putnam's research also suggests that the rise of the Christian Right and its politicization of religon played a major role in driving young people out the church. Luring them back, he argues, calls for decoupling faith and politics once more. Unhappy news for some of the old-school demagogues who have made their career flogging this union. But a very welcome prescription for the rest of us.

Well, I'm not sure how unwelcome this news really is, but I'll let that slide for now.  Europeans seem to be just as nice now as they were back when they went to church a lot.  Maybe nicer, in fact.  Nonetheless, check out that final conclusion: if you turn your church into an arm of the Republican Party, your fortunes are then tied up with the fortunes of the Republican Party.  That worked pretty well for conservative evangelicals for a couple of decades, but now the tide has turned.  Perhaps the answer is for young people to start joining nicer churches and avoiding the culture warriors.  That would be good for both niceness and churchgoing.

Job Losses Slow

The New York Times reports on the latest employment figures:

The United States economy lost 539,000 jobs in April, the government reported on Friday, a sign that the relentless pace of job losses was starting to level off slightly but was still nowhere near ending.

A year ago, the loss of more than half a million jobs in a single month would have seemed like a disaster for the economy. On Friday, experts were calling it an improvement.

This is being taken as yet another sign that although things are still getting worse, they aren't getting worse quite as fast as before.  Or, even more positively, that since employment is a lagging indicator (i.e., it usually keeps declining even after the rest of the economy starts to turn around), this means the recession might be nearly over.

Maybe.  It's true that, just as it's easy to get too optimistic in good times, it's also easy to get too pessimistic in bad times.  But I still wonder if there are more economic shocks around the corner.  If not, we might be headed for a slow recovery.  But if, say, Russia or Austria or Mexico suddenly decides to collapse, we might not be.  Obviously I don't know any more about this possibility than the next guy, but I'm still having a hard time generating much optimism about this report.  We'll see.

Consider this the Friday edition of the "You Gotta Be Kidding Me" beat: Women in Houston are being forced to pay for processing their own rape kits. So I guess that means that people claiming burglary will have to pay for fingerprint analysis, right? From Click2Houston.com:

Tenaha, TX has apparently been using the state's forfeiture law to fleece—guess who? Mostly blacks and Latinos.

From CNN:

Here it is: the results of the banking system stress tests.  How did your bank do?

From a hacker who broke into the Virginia Prescription Monitoring Program:

I have your shit! In *my* possession, right now, are 8,257,378 patient records and a total of 35,548,087 prescriptions. Also, I made an encrypted backup and deleted the original. Unfortunately for Virginia, their backups seem to have gone missing, too. Uhoh :(For $10 million, I will gladly send along the password.

The site has since been shut down.  Bruce Schneier has more.

Apologies if you're getting bored with this, but here is Jeffrey Sachs weighing in on the cap-and-trade debate:

A straightforward carbon tax has vast advantages. (1) It can be levied upstream at a few dozen places — at the wellhead, the mine face, and the liquid natural gas depot — rather than at thousands or tens of thousands of businesses. (2) A carbon tax covers the entire economy, including automobiles, household use, and other units impossible to reach in cap-and-trade. (3) A carbon tax puts a clear price on carbon emissions for many years ahead, while a cap-and-trade system gives a highly fluctuating spot price. (4) A carbon tax raises a clear amount of revenue, which can be used for targeted purposes (R&D for sustainable energy) or rebated to the public in one way or another, while the revenues from a cap-and-trade system are likely to be bargained away well before the first trade ever takes place.

(Numbering mine.) This is amazing.  Sachs is a smart guy.  He's a famous economist.  But as near as I can tell, there's only one true statement in that entire paragraph.  Let's take a look.

First: Cap-and-trade can be implemented either upstream (i.e., you require permits for the inputs, like coal and oil) or downstream (i.e., you require permits for the outputs, the carbon that's actually emitted into the atmosphere).  It's just a matter of how you write the legislation.  The Waxman-Markey bill combines both methods, with electric plants and industrial sources covered downstream while refiners and other producers of liquids and gases are covered upstream.  On this score, there's no inherent difference between a tax and cap-and-trade.

Second: Cap-and-trade can cover the entire economy just as well as a tax can.  Again, it's just a matter of how you write the law.  Waxman-Markey would cover an estimated 85% of all greenhouse gas emissions.

Third: Yes, a carbon tax does place a clear price on emissions — though it's worth keeping in mind that every serious tax proposal envisions changing the tax rate regularly in order to hit emission targets.  So this sentence is sort of true.  (On the other hand, it's worth noting that under a cap-and-trade system, the price of permits naturally decreases whenever demand for energy decreases, as it does in a recession.  So cap-and-trade acts as an automatic stabilizer, which is a handy feature.)

Fourth: Revenue is revenue.  There's simply no reason to think that revenue from cap-and-trade is any more likely to be bargained away than revenue from a tax.

On balance I think cap-and-trade is superior to a carbon tax on several grounds, but there are nonetheless perfectly good arguments in favor of a tax.  So why make arguments like these instead?  It's embarrassing.