Gene Lyons wrote a recent column noting that students have been making steady progress on standardized tests over the past few decades. Bob Somerby wishes people would listen:

Over and over, people are told that test scores are lower. Commenters quickly started bruiting this claim in response to the Lyons piece. In most cases, these commenters didn't seem to have understood the basic things Lyons had said.

They didn't dispute his factual statements. They simply skipped right past them.

Our “career liberal” leaders are worse than useless. Our “educational experts” are anything but. Everyone praises the NAEP test scores—but no one reports what those test scores show!

I'd like to see a bit less panic over our failing schools too. Still, I think the picture is a little less clear than Bob makes it out to be. He points out correctly that looking at raw averages is sometimes misleading: Blacks and Hispanics have always scored lower than whites on standardized tests, and as their population increases that lowers the overall average even if all three groups are actually doing better. To see what's really happening, you have to look at test scores for all three groups separately.

So here they are. The chart below shows test score improvements over the past 20 years on the NAEP reading and math tests, widely considered the "gold standard" of national testing. The source material is here. (Note that for the 1990 starting point I used an average of the 1988/90/92 scores for reading and an average of the 1990/92 scores for math.)

The usual rule of thumb on the NAEP test is that ten points equals one grade level. So what lesson can we draw from this data?

Answer: it's mixed. Nine-year-olds in all three groups have indeed made huge advances in both reading and math, ranging from 10 to 20 points. But things start to slide when you move up to middle school. Improvement among 13-year-olds in math is more modest than among 9-year-olds, though still quite respectable, but reading scores are up only a few points. And when you get to high school things really go to hell. Reading scores for 17-year-olds have gone down and math scores have improved only a bit.

This is all just raw data. You can decide for yourself whether standardized test scores are a good measure of student achievement. You can also decide for yourself which age groups matter the most. My own take is twofold: (1) Our students aren't doing any worse than they did in the past. Panic isn't really justified. (2) Improvements in reading and math scores that wash out by the end of high school aren't that impressive. Until we see substantial improvements among 17-year-olds, I don't think you can say our students are doing much better either.

Are there reasonable arguments against this position? Sure. Maybe the real issue is how we compare internationally. Unfortunately, that data doesn't go back very far and can be tricky to interpret. I've seen significantly different results on different tests. What's more, I'd argue that at an international level, production of advanced degrees is a lot more important than modest differences in primary and secondary education.

It's also true that relying on data for 17-year-olds can be misleading thanks to changes in dropout rates over time. However, the trends for just the top-scoring students are about the same as the overall averages, and that's not affected much by dropout rates. So I suspect this is a minor issue.

I think ed reformers would also argue that most of the reforms of the past 20 years have been focused on the primary grades, so it's not fair to judge those reforms by looking at stagnant 17-year-old scores. We need to see reforms widely adopted in high schools before we can do that. I guess I buy this to an extent, but it's an argument that's getting a little stale. At some point we have to fish or cut bait. Until we see improvements in the final product, so to speak, improvements in the intermediate steps don't really mean very much.

UPDATE: Wait a second! Several commenters pointed out that it's cohort effects that we really want to look at. High school kids in 2008 have spent only a few years in the post-NCLB reform environment, so it's hardly surprising that they don't show big improvements. But how about kids who have spent their entire lives in that environment?

Excellent question. To fully answer it we'll have to wait for the 2015 crop of high school students to be tested, and even to partially answer it we'll have to look at a different dataset. I do that here. Nickel summary: there are some caveats, but the overall picture is more promising than the one I presented here. There are indeed reasons to think that our schools are getting better and our kids are learning more.

This won't come as surprising news to anyone who reads this blog regularly, but if you can't flog a hobbyhorse on a blog, where can you flog it? So here it is: Pew Research is the latest to survey Americans and find that the Republican base really, really doesn't like compromise:

Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, there is broad support for compromise: 65% say lawmakers who share their views on the budget deficit should be willing to compromise, even if it results in a deal they disagree with....[But] there continue to be wide partisan differences in views of compromise. Among those who have heard at least a little about the super committee, 74% of Democrats and 67% of independents support compromise, compared with 52% of Republicans.

Once again, then: this explains most of what you need to know about modern American politics. Republican politicians refuse to compromise because that's what their base rewards them for. Conversely, Democratic politicians support compromise because that's what their base rewards them for.

Always keep this in mind when you're tearing your hair out trying to make sense of what's going on in Washington DC. Sometimes politicians aren't quite as mysterious or bumbling as you think. They're just reacting to their incentives, the same as the rest of us.

Nate Silver has compiled a truly spectacular list of every economic variable that might possibly affect a presidential election and then ranked them by how effectively they actually predict presidential elections. (Since 1948, anyway.) The top ten are below, but click the link for the full list of 43 indicators and a bunch of explanations of what it all means.

The descriptors in the list are a little confusing, but as near as I can tell they're almost all changes, not absolute levels. The exceptions are the various indexes (like the #1 indicator), unemployment, inflation, and a few others. But #6, for example, which is labeled "Real gross domestic product," is actually the change in real GDP, which makes sense. It's the growth rate that usually matters in these things.

The top indicators mostly aren't too surprising. I wouldn't have guessed that the ISM manufacturing index was so great, but change in payroll, change in unemployment, and change in GDP all make a lot of sense. This is one reason that I think President Obama has a good chance to win next year despite presiding over a lousy economy. It's quite possible that GDP will be growing and that unemployment, though high, will be improving too. Combine that with the fact that (a) incumbents usually get reelected and (b) Republicans seem to have taken up permanent residence in crazy town, and he has a pretty good shot at winning even if unemployment is still over 8%.

A few months ago, Matt Taibbi suggested that gaffes from conservative candidates didn't hurt them. "When you laugh at Michele Bachmann for going on MSNBC and blurting out that the moon is made of red communist cheese," he wrote, "these people don't learn that she is wrong. What they learn is that you're a dick, that they hate you more than ever, and that they're even more determined now to support anyone who promises not to laugh at their own visions and fantasies."

Dave Weigel says events have emphatically debunked this idea:

That's clearly not true, is it? Bachmann, Cain, and Perry have engendered the exact same reaction to their screw-ups. There's a wave of media-bashing from the base, collect-a-quotes from Tea Party leaders who say the media is unfair. And then the lights go elsewhere, and there's a slow, quiet, walk-away from the damaged candidates. In today's NH Journal poll of the Granite State, all three of the candidates I mentioned are deep, deep underwater on favorability. It's almost like Republican voters still pay attention to the media.

Hold on a minute, pardner. Let's roll the tape on this:

  • Michele Bachmann was riding high in the polls through June and early July. Then, on July 16, the Des Moines Register asked Rick Perry if he was going to run and he replied that he was "getting more and more comfortable every day that this is what I’ve been called to do." Bachmann started plateauing in the polls. On August 8 it was widely reported that Perry would formally announce his candidacy the following weekend, and the next day Bachmann's poll numbers tanked for good.
  • Rick Perry began his meteoric rise at the same time and kept on rising through the first week of September. Then, on September 12, Bachmann laid into him for mandating HPV vaccinations for "innocent little 12-year-old girls." Perry immediately began sliding in the polls. On September 22 he suggested that if you opposed in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants, "I don't think you have a heart." Within a week his poll numbers began to plunge.
  • Herman Cain was the beneficiary of Perry's fall, rising in the polls during the entire month of October. On October 30 Politico reported that two former employees had lodged sexual harassment charges against him and received payouts from the National Restaurant Association. After a week of wildly fluctuating explanations, Sharon Bialek held a televised press conference on November 7 to say that Cain groped her in a car and asked, "You want a job, right?" Within days Cain's poll numbers began falling.

I don't doubt for a second that erratic debate performances and public gaffes have played a role in damaging all three candidates. But that's mainly because conservative voters already had something substantive to hang their concerns on. Bachmann fell because Perry entered the race; Perry fell because conservatives didn't like his Gardasil and immigration policies; and Cain fell because of sexual harassment charges. That's the main thing that damaged them. Acting like idiots was just the cherry on top.

Here's your blood pressure raiser of the day: Campus police casually pepper spray a group of Occupy Davis students who are sitting on the ground in protest after refusing to remove their tents from the quad. It's not Kent State or anything, but it's sure as hell an outrageous overreaction. Don't watch unless you have a fairly strong stomach for casual brutality.

Front page image: Louise Macabitas

Do you know what Inkblot and Domino are telling you in these pictures? They're telling you to buy a subscription to Mother Jones! In fact, when Inkblot becomes president, he plans to propose an individual mandate for MoJo subscriptions, so why not get a jump on things and just do it now?

Seriously, it's a great magazine and it only costs $12 a year for six issues. Click here to subscribe. And don't forget that the holidays are quickly approaching. What could be better than a gift subscription for someone who needs either (a) confirmation of a bit of sanity in the world or (b) a bit of progressive enlightenment? Click here to buy gift subscriptions for all your family and friends. Inkblot will consider you a pal for life if you do.

We've all heard of Peak Oil. But M. King Hubbert's original paper also covered Peak Coal and Peak Uranium. It turns out there are peaks in pretty much everything that we dig out from under rocks.

And speaking of that, it turns out that Hubbert's insight also applies to this year's crop of Republican presidential candidates. What's more, we can put this all in handy chart format — and thanks to modern technology we can do it much more colorfully than Hubbert could. Using RCP's poll average as a foundation, all the various GOP peaks are documented below. Based on this, I project that Newt Gingrich has about two weeks left before his excessive verbal extraction rate depletes his reserves of grandiose nonsense and his moment in the sun is over.

The New York Times has a preview today of a new report showing that a declining number of people live in middle-income neighborhoods. Partly this is because the ranks of the middle class have declined, but it's also because of self-sorting:

The study also found that there is more residential sorting by income, with the rich flocking together in new exurbs and gentrifying pockets where lower- and middle-income families cannot afford to live.

Andrew Sprung relates this to his wife's suburban neighborhood when she was growing up in the '60s:

Mr. Grimm was a bricklayer. Mr. Wojick was a foreman at the Ford plant. Mr. Majewski worked in a bronze casting factory, as did one other neighbor. Mr. Cobb worked in product safety at Fisher-Price. Mr. Frank was a stockbroker. Tombari sold insurance. Panetta was a meat wholesaler. White was a concrete contractor working mainly on bridges. Carlotti was a dentist (and my father-in-law, an oral surgeon). The Murphys, husband and wife, were teachers, and so were the Stones. Burger was a roofer…[Today,] there are fewer factory workers, natch. And I suspect that the dentists and stockbrokers probably live elsewhere.

It was similar in my neighborhood. My father was a university professor. Our neighbor on one side worked at a local factory. Our neighbor on the other side owned a machine shop that made airplane parts. Our neighbor across the street was career Navy. My best friend's father was a Caltrans engineer.

You don't see that kind of thing as much anymore. Today the middle- and working-class folks have stayed or perhaps moved down, while the dentists and stockbrokers and professors and engineers all live together in upper-middle-class neighborhoods with great schools and great services. And this self-segregation works in other ways too. I remember reading once that if you have a college degree, the odds are that virtually all your friends do too. So I tested that once. At a party with about 20 of our friends, I mentally went around the room and ticked off each person. Sure enough, all but one of them had a college degree, and about a third had advanced degrees of one kind or another. Given all this, it's hardly surprising that the report finds that 65 percent of families lived in middle-income neighborhoods in 1970 and today only 44 percent do:

Sean F. Reardon, an author of the study and a sociologist at Stanford, argued that the shifts had far-reaching implications for the next generation. Children in mostly poor neighborhoods tend to have less access to high-quality schools, child care and preschool, as well as to support networks or educated and economically stable neighbors who might serve as role models.

The isolation of the prosperous, he said, means less interaction with people from other income groups and a greater risk to their support for policies and investments that benefit the broader public—like schools, parks and public transportation systems. About 14 percent of families lived in affluent neighborhoods in 2007, up from 7 percent in 1970, the study found.

This isn't a new observation. We've been fretting for a long time about the rise of gated communities, the abandonment of public schools by prosperous city residents, and the booming market in McMansions. And more and more, this kind of segregation doesn't apply only to the truly rich. Increasingly, even the merely well off hardly have any social interaction outside their own class: They live in different neighborhoods, eat in different restaurants, send their kids to different schools and different sports leagues, and vacation in different places. As this gets worse, it's reflected in the increased insistence of the rich and the upper middle class that their taxes are far too burdensome and, in any case, are just wasted anyway. And that's true, if a big part of your tax dollars is going to middle- and low-income workers who all live elsewhere and barely even seem like real people. It's a toxic trend, and it's one that's increasingly reflected not just in our social lives, but in our economic lives and our political lives too. It's not clear what, if anything, can slow it down.

Karl Smith has been predicting for a while that pent-up demand for cars and housing will start to drive economic recovery in the very near future. Today, he notes that auto sales are starting to rebound, apartment construction is up smartly, and private forecasters are starting to project nice GDP gains in the fourth quarter:

As long as Europe doesn’t destroy the world — and it very well may — I expect Multi-Family starts to be posting record highs by the end of 2012.

And I mean record, never before in American history will construction be started on so many apartment complex units.

I continue to think that debt constraints are going to keep growth reined in for a while, and that both Europe and China might have serious effects on the U.S. economy in the near term. Still, there's also reason for optimism, and I think Karl makes about as good a case as anyone for it.

Last year, Judge Vaughn Walker ruled that Proposition 8, a California initiative banning same-sex marriage, was unconstitutional. The initiative's backers wanted to appeal the decision, but neither California's governor nor its attorney general was willing to defend it. With no one to defend it, Walker's ruling would have stood by default and same-sex marriage would have been legal in California.

Yesterday, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Prop 8's backers could defend the initiative if the state wouldn't:

Thursday's unanimous decision, written by Chief Justice Tani Cantil-Sakauye, strongly affirmed that ballot sponsors may represent California in defending initiatives when elected officials fail to do so...."Neither the Governor, the Attorney General, nor any other executive or legislative official has the authority to veto or invalidate an initiative measure that has been approved by the voters," Cantil-Sakauye wrote for the court.

Legal scholars said the state high court's decision was so adamant that the U.S. Supreme Court, which could decide marriage rights as early as 2013, was unlikely to limit its ruling to the narrow and technical issue of "standing," a legal term for the right to go to court.

It feels more than usually loathsome to take sides with the Prop 8 folks here, but this is a good decision. It would be a travesty if a successful ballot measure could be overturned by a single district court judge and then, by virtue of a procedural formality, stay overturned simply because state officials declined to defend one of their own laws. If the tables were turned, I'd be blisteringly outraged by shenanigans like this.

Like it or not, Prop 8 was passed legally and properly. If it's overturned, it should be overturned on its merits — as Walker's decision did — not thanks to a legal technicality. I hope they lose, but Prop 8's backers deserve their day in court.