12/23/2010 06:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Educating for Democracy: Numbers Lie

A recent issue of the New York Times just published the test results of the most recent State-wide standardized tests for the city and other state schools as well as Regents results.

The numbers I've seen so far are not surprising: they generally correlate to the demographics of the student population. In comparing districts, New York City, with 66 percent of the population designated as "poor," had an 18 percent "advanced" rate for students who were proficient in reading and math in all tested grades. This was comparable to Yonkers with a similar poverty rate and slightly lower proficiency rate of 15 percent, which is far better than Syracuse with a 66 percent poverty rate and a much lower proficiency rate -- 7 percent. But the Sachem district with a 6 percent poverty rate had a 29 percent proficiency rate and Wappingers Falls with a slightly higher poverty rate did almost as well with 23 percent.

Not all these numbers correlated as closely: Newburgh, with a much lower poverty rate than NYC -- 51 percent -- had barely half the percentage of proficient students in the state-wide exams -- 10 percent. While, Greece -- the school district, not the country -- with half of Newburgh's poverty rate, 23 percent, had almost triple its proficiency rate at 26 percent. But what the numbers indicate, if anything, is that there is some rough correlation between advanced proficiency in these state-wide tests and affluence, or poverty.

Yet in the case that one thinks that I have any faith that these numbers are an accurate measure of what students actually learn, I hope to disabuse you. Looking more carefully at the content of what they learn rather than the data, Francis Lewis High School offers five languages: Latin, Italian, French, Hebrew and Spanish, while Dewitt Clinton offers one. And in terms of enrollment in difficult courses, at Brooklyn Tech, 1,345 students took chemistry Regents out of a population of 4,600 while at DeWitt Clinton with a comparable population, only 371 took that Regents. A close examination of the content of what is taught in these courses at the schools mentioned might also prove revealing.

But even if the Regents are a more accurate reflection of what young learners are taught and what they actually learn, I very much doubt, given the recent revelations about New York's "dumbed-down" state-wide tests, that there is any meaningful correlation between those tests and the quality of the students' education. Numbers can lie.

A recent Huffington Post blog by Larry Falazzo reveals the dangers of employing even videos and questionnaires of student reaction to their teachers' methods of instruction as they are being used by Bill Gates to gather more "data" in order to "prove" who is a good teacher and who is not. Yes, numbers, any kind of numbers, can lie in order to prove a point.

The quality of the learning experiences of the young not only cannot be measured accurately by tests, but cannot be effectively determined by limiting what they learn to the classroom. A far more complex, open and dynamic form of teaching than what is presently being advanced as "reform" is desperately needed in this country if future generations of Americans who do not come from privilege are to be effectively educated. I invite readers of this blog to link up with a video I've helped produce that dramatizes the problem of using numbers to substitute for teaching and offers an alternative way to enrich, not impoverish, public education. I hope you will find it worth examining.