Burying the story about test scores

You don’t need a degree in journalism to realize you tell the readers the most important part of the story in the first paragraph. That is based on the notion that most readers will bail out for the sports section after reading the so-called lead if they read it at all. And while nobody at the State Department of Education would concede the point, there’s a good chance they downplayed the real lead and buried that deeper into the news release when it comes to the recent batch of statewide student test scores.

In case you missed it, the department lead told parents that M-Step scores show math and social study gains in eight of nine grades.

You come away from that feeling pretty good in that apparently our students are getting smarter.

What the MDE conveniently left out of the lead was the fact that in all grades, with the exception of one, none of the students who took the exam scored 50 percent or above. The fifth grade students scored a 51.1 percent on the English test.

State School Superintendent Brian Whitson says it was “exciting” to see the improvements in math and social sciences and he was “disappointed” the English scores weren’t better but even he confesses, “I wasn’t specific about the bad news.”

“There was nothing untruthful” in the news release notes the Education Department guy who wrote it and he was absolutely correct. Nobody lied. They just failed to tell the whole story and left it to the reader to figure out what a mess this test was.

Nowhere in the narrative of the news release does it confess that so many kids did not reach the 50 percent level. The numbers are buried in a lengthy chart that you have to weed through to find and if the typical reader didn’t get that far, they never discovered the glaring fact.

For some small media markets where press releases are routinely printed by the local paper without a pair of journalistic eyeballs reviewing the content, the department got away with this. In larger media outlets, reporters saw right through the thinly veiled vainer and used a lead that was more revealing.

Look, one can understand that this is not good news and no one who is working for the taxpayer wants to air that dirty wash for the whole world to see. But the facts are facts. And it would have been refreshing had the lead said something like this: The vast majority of students who took a state education test failed to reach 50 percent proficiency although there was some improvement in math and social studies.

Sometime ago the department did call in the capitol news hounds for an eyeball to eyeball exchange with the employees who conducted the test and analyzed the results. They started the meeting with the fact that this was a new test and some scores had improved. But the longer it when on, the tougher the questions got and the bureaucrats had to concede the obvious.

They did object to the term “flunking.” Apparently there is some sort of stigma attached to that. As much as they tried to put a positive spin on the numbers, it was inescapable that the numbers were not good.

There has not been a news conference on these results since then and the department explains, “we don’t do press conferences very often with these releases.”

Yeah. Wonder why?

There is no question that Mr. Whitson and his crew are dedicated to turning this educational ship around as it continues to list despite “improvements.” The goal is to achieve 85 percent of the students passing all the exams.

Maybe leveling with the parents, without the spin, would be a good place to start to get there?