Saturday, April 19, 2014

Monday Roundup: Feds Might Have Prevented Mine Disaster

03/26/2012

Daily Yonder Accordionists (l-r) Walt Harfmann of Brooksville, Florida, Gwen Petersen of Plantersville, TX, and Gene Hackemack of Brenham, TX, took the stage with about thirty more musicians at the culmination of the South Texas Polka and Sausage Fest in Halletsville, March 25. Here they played and sang "Krasna Amerika" (Beautiful America), one of many Czech-language songs performed throughout the afternoon.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported yesterday that an examination of student test results for 69,000 schools in 49 states "found high concentrations of suspect scores" in 200 schools. 

By "suspect," the AJC means that school test scores changed to a degree that were highly unlikely without some kind of outside manipulation. (Here is a map and links to the stories.) 

The paper contends that pressure to have ever-better test scores under federal and state laws has led to widespread cheating. The paper searched for schools where changes in scores were far greater than were statistically probable.

The AJC found:

Big-to-medium-sized cities and rural districts harbored the highest concentrations of suspect tests. No Child Left Behind may help explain why. The law forced districts to contend with the scores of poor and minority students in an unprecedented way, judging schools by the performance of such “subgroups” as well as by overall achievement.

Hence, high-poverty schools faced some of the most relentless pressure of the kind critics say increases cheating.

Improbable scores were twice as likely to appear in charter schools as regular schools. Charters, which receive public money, can face intense pressure as supposed laboratories of innovation that, in theory, live or die by their academic performance.

The AJCs methods have been criticized. The Washington Post carries a critique of the AJC story by Gary Miron, a professor of education at Western Michigan University. Miron has reviewed this kind of data for other news publications.

Miron said the AJC data did not take student mobility into account: districts that have rapid changes in test scores from year to year may be the result of changing student populations, not cheating. 

• Howard Berkes at NPR reports that an independent review of the federal mine safety agency's work at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia found that the agency failed to see "a number of enforcement difficiencies" there that contributed to the April 2010 explosion that took 29 lives. 

The report was compiled by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and covered work done by the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration. NIOSH concluded that "...if MSHA had engaged in timely enforcement of the Mine Act...it would have lessened the chances of — and possibly could have prevented — the UBB explosion."

• Here is a headline for our time: "Budget proposal in Missouri House would eliminate aid for the blind." 

Yes, we're down to cutting the blind. Missouri has a program that helps pay for medical care for blind residents who don't qualify for Medicaid. Recipients can't have sighted spouses or have more than $20,000 in assets. But the $28 million program was cut as the House searches for funding for higher education.

• The U.S. Senate begins debate on the U.S. Postal Service this week, according to the Washington Post. 

The Senate is supposed to vote today on a procedure that would allow a vote on a bill that would permit the end of Saturday mail and the closure of thousands of post offices and hundreds of mail processing centers.

The hope is to have a vote by Friday on a final package.

• Rick Santorum is still pushing his strength in rural areas as a rationale for his candidacy. 

Santorum is running against Mitt Romney in the Republican presidential primary and while he keeps winning states, he is not close to catching Romney in the number of delegates to the national convention. But, says the former Pennsylvania senator, he is good at pulling votes from rural America. Here he is talking Sunday in Wisconsin, which votes in early April:

We saw great turnout in Louisiana yesterday which we're really excited about. And I think we'll see a good turnout here ... We're feeling good that we're going to do well out here in small towns and rural areas and we'll try to crank out the vote and do a big upset here.

• A federal judge has overturned an Obama administration veto of the largest coal strip mining permit in West Virginia history. The judge said the federal Environmental Protection Agency had overstepped its authority in turning down a permit for the Spurce Mine, the largest mountaintop removal project in the history of a state with large mining projects. Ken Ward Jr. reports

U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled that the federal Environmental Protection Agency is not authorized to withdraw a Clean Water Act permit that already was issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"This is a stunning power for an agency to arrogate to itself when there is absolutely no mention of it in the statute," Jackson wrote in a 34-page opinion that's been highly anticipated by all sides in the mountaintop-removal debate.

Jackson called the language at issue in the law unclear and confusing, but said the EPA's reading was not a reasonable interpretation.

The decision is a major victory not only for mine operator Arch Coal Inc. but also for the coal industry and for Appalachian political leaders who have been waging a bitter campaign against the EPA's crackdown on mountaintop removal.