There are lies, damned lies, and statistics.
Mark Twain attributed that quote to British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli. Its exact provenance is a matter of debate.
The truth of the quote itself is not.
Anyone who has ever had to work with statistics knows that they are endless plastic, and can be manipulated easily.
That said, I love statistics. I just don’t trust them. So when I see a rash of them crop up attached to an emotional argument, I feel uneasy.
There have been a host of statistics on local social media sites recently, arguing over the Monroe School District.
A recent story on a website called socialcapitalreview.org reported that Monroe’s eighth grade reading scores are low. That has been extrapolated into an indictment of the entire school district.
But others point to a recent award received by Monroe for greatly improving graduation rates. Some point to increases in the number of students taking advanced classes, doing well on the SATs and going on to good colleges.
An informed debate is the only useful kind of debate. I want to inform the debate. So I rounded up data. There is no shortage of numbers purported to measure how well kids are learning. The OSPI site is jammed with them.
But there are problems with the numbers.
For one thing, there are so many of them that it takes forever to search them and distill from them a comprehensive picture of the district.
For another thing, the tables and graphs can be really misleading. When you see a little color key to a table and the top color is blue, your eye searches the table for blue and assumes that if there’s a bunch, the school is doing well. Similarly, if light green is called “good” but in fact merely means average, and average is about 60 percent, you may scan for green and assume that schools with lots of it are doing fine.
And 60 percent of what, precisely?
Who decides what kids should leave school knowing? And how do they test for it? And when we see numbers telling us that only 72 percent of students are passing eighth grade reading, or what have you, do we even know what constitutes a passing grade? Is it 51percent or 80 percent?
Then there’s the state Achievement Index. State test scores don’t tell you how much the school is improving or what challenges it faces, or how Hispanic students are doing compared to Caucasian kids.
The Achievement Index is an extremely complex algorithm that attempts to combine several ways of measuring schools into one yardstick, in an effort to make it possible to evaluate all schools with one common device.
It’s confusing, and in the end, you end up taking a lot on faith.
That being said, I wanted this week to condense the most relevant data into a few simple graphs that would make it easy to evaluate arguments made about the school district.
It took most of two days, and I had to basically learn Excel, but I’m pleased with how it came out.
I’m giving it an enormous amount of space in the paper. U.S. News and World Report annually devotes a double-length issue to college evaluations, and so it doesn’t seem out of line to devote a quarter of the paper to this one subject, this one week.
I hope it helps clarify the state of the district.