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OP-ED | Numbers Don’t Lie, Unless Someone Wants Them To

by Barth Keck | Dec 13, 2013 6:30am
(1) Comment | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Ethics, Opinion


You’ve probably heard how the editors at Oxford Dictionaries proclaimed selfie the word of the year because of its 17,000-percent increase in frequency in 2103. The officials at Merriam-Webster, meanwhile, had a different choice — science — because that word saw the biggest increase in inquiries over the past year — 176 percent.

Said Editor-in-Chief-at-Large Peter Sokolowski, “Our data shows . . . that many of the most looked-up words in the dictionary are words that reflect the big ideas that are lurking behind the headlines.”

Sokolowski said the growing popularity of the word science indicates its ever-increasing importance in political discussions such as those regarding “climate change and education as well as Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, criticized as a misrepresentation of science.”

Ah hah! Science linked with education and the idea that it’s sometimes misrepresented. Now we’re on to something.

Never in my career as a high school English teacher — as an instructor of reading and writing, as a purveyor of literature — have I been asked to collect more “student data” and create more “spreadsheets” than I have in the past several years.

And people think Malcolm Gladwell’s not a scientist!

But science is where public education is hanging its hat right now, from the “metrics” applied to teacher evaluations to the data collected from standardized tests. And why not? Science turns a frustratingly nebulous concept — educational progress — into a black-and-white, numbers-don’t-lie picture.

If only it were so easy.

Call me a cynic, but numbers can lie. Or, at least, they can be manipulated by people who want to prove a point.

Take the recent results of the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, which compares 15-year-olds in 65 global locations by their ability in math, science, and reading skills.

“Three years ago, I came here with a special report benchmarking the U.S. against some of the best performing and rapidly improving education systems. Most of them have pulled further ahead,” said Andreas Schleicher of the Department of Education. “The math results of top-performer Shanghai are now two-and-a-half school years ahead even of those in Massachusetts — itself a leader within the U.S.”

So there you have it — a scientifically-calibrated test proves that American students continue to fall behind schoolchildren from the rest of the world. A closer look, however, reveals a murkier picture.

“Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said the school system in Shanghai is not equitable and the students tested are children of the elite because they are the ones allowed to attend municipal schools [due to] restrictions such as those that keep many migrant children out. ‘The Shanghai scores frankly to me are difficult to interpret,’ Loveless said. ‘They are almost meaningless’.”

OK, but don’t the PISA results still show how far American students have slipped from the top?

“The United States has NEVER been first in the world, nor even near the top, on international tests,” writes Diane Ravitch. “Over the past half century, our students have typically scored at or near the median, or even in the bottom quartile.”

Perhaps it has something to do with the sample of students worldwide. That is, are other country’s test takers truly representative of their population? Such scientific details somehow get lost in the discussion.

What we have here, simply, is a patently unscientific strategy called “juking the stats.”

Popularized by the classic HBO series “The Wire,” juking the stats was how Baltimore cops in the show bent numbers and words, such as crime rates and categories, to prove they were getting the job done.

A real-world example of juking the stats occurred this year when the Amistad Academy, a charter school in New Haven, announced a “100-percent college acceptance rate” for its graduates. “This year, that means all 30 seniors are headed to college, to schools ranging from Gateway Community College to the Ivy League.”

Wow! Who could argue with a 100-percent success rate?

“The ‘100 percent’ figure does not give the full picture for the whole group of kids who entered Amistad four years ago. Data show that for nearly [each] one of them who walked across the stage Wednesday, another was ‘lost’ along the way.”

I guess transfers and dropouts don’t count. So much for the science of statistics — especially when applied to educational progress.

What education needs most, it seems, is a large dose of integrity — a word, incidentally, that placed 9th on Merriam-Webster’s 2013 list. It doesn’t rank up there with science, but there’s always next year.

Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who also teaches courses in journalism and media literacy at Haddam-Killingworth High School. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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posted by: Charlie Puffers | December 13, 2013  8:37pm

Thanks for speaking the truth about what is happening in K-12 education.  Don’t forget some other favorite words like differentiation and fidelity.  By the way Gateway accepts 100% of its applicants who have a GED or HS diploma. Its easy enough for a school to require every senior to complete an application before receiving a diploma.  This will guarantee a 100% college acceptance rate every year.