Was the Journal UpFront Column About Student Letters Fair?

March 21st, 2015 · 6 Comments · Education, inequality, journalism, role of government, state government

By Denise Tessier

A week ago (March 13), the Albuquerque Journal gave its most important front page slot – the upper right-hand column – to an UpFront opinion piece by D’Val Westphal, one of the Journal’s editorial writers. It was headlined “Students’ letters show the system isn’t working”.

In it, Westphal reported that she had obtained, via a public records request, copies of 165 letters written by Santa Fe high school students to Education Secretary Hanna Skandera. And of these letters she wrote:

They are stunning. And not in a good way.

Illustrating the story were five letters, all of which were hand-printed – not typed or written in cursive – and Westphal wrote that they “seem to be from early elementary students with a rudimentary grasp of grammar, spelling and logic,” rather than from students in high school.

Four of the five letters contained misspellings and other mistakes. The impression left by the column was that the letters being shown and others quoted in the story with similar errors were representative of the total 165 letters, not anomalies. Yet, just three days before this column ran (March 10) the Journal published a well-research and articulate letter from a Kelly Drummond of Los Lunas (the fourth in this group of letters about testing), who self-identified as a student “speaking for many students at my school.”

That left this reader wondering. And it turns out, others were wondering about the letters and the Journal column as well.

KNME’s New Mexico in Focus weekly media email, in advance of its March 20 segment, said local expert panelists on the The Line would be discussing “whether student letters published recently in the Albuquerque Journal truly represent the writing skills of New Mexico students.”

Then Friday morning, before The Line discussion aired, Joey Peters of the Santa Fe Reporter wrote about the same group of letters Westphal had obtained, but put them in a completely different light.

The story Peters posted was headlined “Dear Hanna Skandera: Student letters to education secretary about PARCC testing weren’t as bad as story portrayed” and in it he wrote:

While Westphal picked the worst excerpts of the 165 letters sent to Skandera, for this post, I’ll do the opposite and choose from the best excerpts.

He then did so, noting that one showed a student “properly citing her sources and studying up on civic affairs”:

“According to an article on NJ.com,” writes Santa Fe High School student Gabriel Valdez, “the New Jersey assembly passed a bill to postpone the impact of new state standardized tests for three years.”

Valdez also appears to be following the money, referring to the federal No Child Left Behind law and the companies that made money off of it. “Need I remind you that the goal of these providers was to make a profit, with Pearson Education being the most profitable and successful?” Valdez writes.

He said several letters showed students “articulating the reasons for their opposition to the PARCC test”:

“I oppose the secrecy involved in the PARCC exam,” writes Santa Fe High School student Tracy Akers. “No teacher, administrator or parent will ever see the exam, or the results beyond a “score”. No parent, student or teacher will be able to view or have in hand a copy of the exam to understand and review how the exam was scored.”

Others, he wrote, showed students using critical thinking:

“Putting more time, money and energy into testing students is a waste of resources that could have been used improving the public education system of New Mexico, one that is in desperate need of innovative thinking and creative minds,” writes Ryan Miller, another Santa Fe High School student. “The data collected by tests is useful, and while I understand that and expect for it to continue, I believe that continuing support of intelligence and creativity will help young people of the world develop into people who can solve problems and create a more innovative, healthy future.”

Embedded at the bottom of Peters’ online story is a box in which readers can look at actual copies of the letters and decide for themselves. (Check out the well-written case made against testing in letter #35, too lengthy to recount here, by Ricardo Gonzales).

Before even reading the content of the letters in the box, however, the contrast in their appearance to the few selected for focus by Westphal is striking.

Many of those posted by Peters are typewritten; many look as professional as a business letter, with headings, salutations and sometimes a handwritten signature below a typed closing line.

Those that were not typed, but hand-written, generally were in print style, a mode those from an older generation might consider more representative of elementary school than high school. But printing as a preferred mode of writing is a change that started decades ago, when computers entered elementary classrooms and trumped penmanship in terms of importance as a skill. (To my dismay, my own grown children prefer printing when writing, and often say they cannot read my cursive script.) By my count, only six of the hand-written letters to Skandera were done in cursive writing.

It should be noted that when asked about the UpFront column by host Gene Grant, The Line panelists on Friday’s segment of New Mexico In Focus responded without having had the benefit of seeing the letters that appeared in the Santa Fe Reporter piece that morning. The show is generally taped on Thursday, the day before broadcast.

The handwriting shown with the UpFront column was mentioned by more than one panelist, with Dan Foley, former New Mexico House Minority Whip, calling cursive “a lost art.”

But the panelists also seemed to wonder whether the Journal’s selection was truly representative.

Rob Nikolewski of New Mexico Watchdog.org said he wasn’t surprised by the letters, considering so many students start college by taking remedial courses, but said this group of letters was “so striking,” noting that he and the other panelists would just have to take Westphal’s word that it was a representative sample.

Sophie Martin, an attorney and co-publisher of Duke City Fix, said the letters would not constitute “evidence” of a widespread problem unless they “are a large enough sample size.” Having said that, she added that with texting and emailing, actual writing isn’t a priority in schools or society today, and noted that in writing the protest letters, a group of students tried to express themselves to government and “were ridiculed” at the state level via the Journal.

Laura Sanchez-Rivét of Sanchez Legal Solutions said “we should all feel a sense of shame” from the letters highlighted by the Journal. And she offered an anecdote, saying she taught graduate students for three years and found the quality of writing among them “not what one of would expect of MBA students.” When correcting their work, some of the students told her they hadn’t had her kind of feedback before.

Foley added to the discussion by addressing letters as protest and offered an anecdote from his days as a state legislator, saying that when student protesters chanted at the Capitol, he would ask them to elaborate on their concerns. Usually, he said, he was met with silence or something like, “They told me to say that,” revealing the students were “political pawns.”

Early on in her UpFront piece, Westphal said her column was “not about the PARCC” (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, the assessment tests about which students had protested in Santa Fe and about which the letters were written).

She also wrote that her column “certainly isn’t intended to make fun of the academic abilities of some of the state’s high school students.”

Rather, she wrote, “it is a lesson in what happens when a state and a K-12 school system do not have benchmarks in place that really mean something – either as a measure of student achievement or growth.”

The column was convincing in some of its points, such as that some of the letters expressed fear about the test (with one student writing, “Even 1st year college students can’t pass it”) even though at the time of the letters, the test hadn’t been administered before and therefore had no track record, according to Westphal.

What is left to the readers’ imagination after reading the column is who or what prompted the letter writing campaign. While one might suspect teachers coordinated the effort, there is nothing in the column saying these were written in class. Certainly the lack of editing on some of the letters – and the fact that Westphal’s examples were among those sent – indicates these letters were not vetted and likely not written under teacher guidance (at least not the ones cited by Westphal).

The most we get from Westphal in terms of information about the inspiration for this letter campaign is: “miscommunication at best and deliberately fomenting fear among children for political gain at worst.”

So, who was fomenting fear? Teachers? Parents? Fellow students? The media?

The latter must be considered, because even the Journal has consistently reported that Gov. Susana Martinez and her education secretary have had ongoing conflicts with parents, teachers, school board members, administrators and the Legislature, conflicts that have been going on for years.

Students have likely read – or heard directly in their communities – that their parents, teachers and even administrators have expressed concern about the new testing, knowing that teacher evaluations and pay and the overall grades given to individual schools themselves hinge on whether students take these tests and how well they perform on them.

To diverge for a moment with an aside about the PARCC assessment:

Long-time journalist, poet, author and New Mexico Mercury publisher V. B. Price wrote a column this past week after he himself had taken the 11th grade reading portion of the PARCC test. Because it contained a handy link, I clicked on it without even finishing Price’s column, anxious to see the test for myself.

Being short on time, I must confess I quit after the second question, partly because I could not quickly figure out how to proceed to the next page, but mainly because on the very first question I found a problem. In my view, none of the answers to question 1 were correct. Price himself used question 1 as an example from the test in his column:

“In paragraph 2, what does the phrase inherent aloneness suggest about Helga?” The multiple choice is: A. She dislikes the company of others. B. She is uncomfortable interacting with others. C. She feels that other people are judging her. D. She is uncomfortable being alone.” If tests are supposed to be teaching tools as well as a instruments of judgment, do you find this enlightening?

I read and reread paragraph 2 and, to my literal mind, it contained no evidence Helga experienced any of the four choices. It was clear that the answer should be she felt she didn’t belong among the people where she had been – not that she disliked company, was uncomfortable interacting with people, felt she was being judged or that she was uncomfortable being alone. That, however, wasn’t offered as an answer choice. (I’m guessing the computer wanted an answer of C. Because it was clear she didn’t feel she belonged, she might be feeling others were judging her. But that answer would assume the test-taker had learned that lesson in life, not from reading and interpreting a literary paragraph.)

So, I found myself questioning the very first offering, and imagined the frustration a high school student might feel at not “getting” even the first question on the test.

Here’s Price’s reaction to taking the test:

Halfway through taking the practice test produced by PARCC . . .I realized I might not be able to pass the 11th grade reading portion. The multiple choice answers on the test were very like the options a human being might be given by a machine. Designed like semantic puzzles, virtually indecipherable and charged with the anxiety of potential failure, the practice test and its multiple choice answers seemed purposefully confusing. Taking the test felt sort of like playing chess with a supercomputer on a time clock.. . .

And his conclusion:

Because evaluations of a teacher’s proficiency and of her school’s effectiveness are attached to student achievement on these tests, the teacher ends up being a testing coach with which a student has a purely functional relationship, learning from the teacher how to read the interpretations of the testers and intuiting, perhaps, the “correct” answer. The intellectual relationship between student and teacher, which in many situations is one of reciprocal inspiration, is replaced with a version of apprenticeship whereby the students learn the tricks of the trade of taking tests and little else.

But back to the UpFront column and the Journal’s decision to run it as prominently as it did.

Despite her disclaimer that the column was “not about the PARCC”, the test was an inherent part of Westphal’s column. The impression left was that the students protesting the taking of the assessment test were protesting because they would have failed it, given the poor quality of the letters shown in the column.

The column, in essence then, buttressed the Journal’s editorial position on PARCC and its years-long support of Martinez and Skandera in general on education reform.

In fact on Feb. 26, the editorial board (of which Westphal is a member) produced an official editorial position for the Journal that went beyond chastising the Santa Fe students who had protested the test (and the one student who damaged property during the protests). It did that, but went on to say that those who protested the test essentially have no further goals in life than to “apply for Medicaid. Or Legal Aid. Or a payday loan.”

It went beyond that even to say that “ignorance and poverty will continue to ascend as the state’s leading economic drivers” if students continue on the path of failing to perform at grade level.

Got that? The state’s problem with poverty is its education system, not the other way around. The editorial does not consider that poverty and unemployment might be obstacles for New Mexico students  who enter classrooms hungry, or sick, or stressed from problems at home or outright homelessness.

Yet on March 2 the Journal itself published a Los Angeles Times story that said one in four Americans feels stressed over money most or all of the time, with most saying the stress has remained the same as last year (59 percent) or has gotten worse (29 percent).

And back on Jan. 19 the Journal published a Washington Post article that reported 51 percent of U.S. school students live in poverty. New Mexico showed up on the accompanying map as one of the poorest states in the nation.

That article, reporting results of a study by the Southern Education Foundation, also said:

The shift to a majority-poor student population means that in public schools, a growing number of children start kindergarten already trailing their more privileged peers and rarely, if ever, catch up. They are less likely to have support at home, are less frequently exposed to enriching activities outside of school, and are more likely to drop out and never attend college.

It also means that education policy, funding decisions and classroom instruction must adapt to the needy children who arrive at school each day.

The story then quoted the Lew Wallace Elementary School teacher who was profiled on the Journal’s front page today (March 21) after her above and beyond attention to students drew national recognition from Ellen DeGeneres, whose producers learned about her from the Washington Post story.

Incredibly, the following segment of the Post story was deleted from the version published by the Journal Jan. 19:

“When they first come in my door in the morning, the first thing I do is an inventory of immediate needs: Did you eat? Are you clean? A big part of my job is making them feel safe,” said Sonya Romero-Smith, a veteran teacher at Lew Wallace Elementary School in Albuquerque. Fourteen of her 18 kindergartners are eligible for free lunches.

She helps them clean up with bathroom wipes and toothbrushes, and she stocks a drawer with clean socks, underwear, pants and shoes.

Romero-Smith, 40, who has been a teacher for 19 years, became a foster mother in November to two girls, sisters who attend her school. They had been homeless, their father living on the streets and their mother in jail, she said. When she brought the girls home, she was shocked by the disarray of their young lives.

“Getting rid of bedbugs, that took us a while. Night terrors, that took a little while. Hoarding food, flushing a toilet and washing hands, it took us a little while,” she said. “You spend some time with little ones like this and it’s gut wrenching. . . .

These kids aren’t thinking, ‘Am I going to take a test today?’ They’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be okay?’ ”

The job of teacher has expanded to “counselor, therapist, doctor, parent, attorney,” she said.

As Kent McGuire, president of the Southern Education Foundation that produced the report, told the Post:

The fact is, we’ve had growing inequality in the country for many years. . .It didn’t happen overnight, but it’s steadily been happening. Government used to be a source of leadership and innovation around issues of economic prosperity and upward mobility. Now we’re a country disinclined to invest in our young people.

Another telling quote in the article came from Darren Walker, president of the Ford Foundation, who was born in 1959 in a charity hospital to a single mother but always felt during his school years that adults wanted him to succeed. To the Post reporter, he said:

I don’t think today that low-income children and their families feel that America is cheering them on.

(Also on Jan. 19, the Journal published a Los Angeles Times report that schools on military bases are badly in need of repair, some such bad condition that they need to be replaced. That article quoted Defense Department spokesman Mark Wright as saying schools lost millions with sequestration – the mandatory federal GOP-led budget cuts of 2013.)

What we have here is a pattern by the Journal, not to cheer students on, but to cheer on policies that demand more of them and of teachers.

As Peters’ story revealed, the UpFront column lacked precision at best and was misleading at worst when it led readers to believe that most of the letter writers protesting PARCC had writing skills below their high school level.

In highlighting those letters, the UpFront column did show that some students in our schools need help– tutoring at the least and likely other help as well.

Where is the article or editorial championing that?

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Scot Key

    Thank you very, very much for not only going into this one instance of bias and an ethical lapse, but a sustained pattern of unprofessional and morally bankrupt “reporting.” The Journal in its current state is a blight on journalism and the city it so very poorly serves. We should be and are embarrassed to live in a city whose newspaper is so very awful.

  • Roland Penttila

    Thanks for the excellent article. As I don’t subscribe to the Journal, I only heard of this article from TV news. And, what was portrayed was shocking and depressing. I’m glad to learn that the Journal did a hatchet job on this story as they so often do on others and that the truth was far different.

    As a retired civil engineer who printed from the age of 10, I have to say that cursive handwriting seems to have gone the way of the dinosaur. The American father of cursive was Platt Rodgers Spencer and equated good handwriting with other traits like manners, kindness, respect for elders so he was on a mission to change America through better handwriting. Those days are gone. But, clear writing, grammar and punctuation have not gone out of style.

    However, good journalism seems to be out of style at the Albuquerque Journal.

  • Benito Aragon

    This is a really excellent piece Denise, and it goes to the heart of why so many people in New Mexico remain ill informed on so many issues.
    The real story for New Mexico’s education for years has been that many kids continue to thrive in spite of rampant political corruption and failed economic policies that have contributed to New Mexico’s poverty level. It’s not the kids and teachers who are failing, but rather those in power. Look at the legislature’s productivity when all elected members are well-fed, imagine if they showed up hungry.

    Props to Joey Peters for adding real context to the Journal’s embarrassing display of editorial ethics.

  • diane denish

    This is no surprise from a paper who is now enlarging print for obituaries to make up for lagging advertising sales. Shallow Journalism by D’Val Westphal.

  • D Chester

    The fight against Corporate takeover of our public schools deserves MORE attention from all media, as it may be the defining factor in our becoming a true oligarchy or not. The takeover on behalf of Wall Street is being facilitated by the State and Federal governments, Democrats and Republicans alike. Who will speak for students, parents, and teachers?

  • Andre Larroque

    Excellent article, Denise and a good question at the end.

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