Number spin minimizes grade-change impact - WSFA.com: News Weather and Sports for Montgomery, AL.

Number spin minimizes grade-change impact

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

Often when journalists deal with issues that involve numbers, they struggle to quantify the impact of those issues in ways that are simple but not misleading. A headline that shouts, "Murders in Community Double" can be perfectly accurate, but also misleading if the number of murders went up from one last month to two this month.

Similarly, public officials can use numbers in ways that tend to maximize the perception of the impact of issues that make them look good, and to minimize the perception of the impact of issues that make them look bad.

Take, for instance, the grade-change scandal in the Montgomery Public Schools system.

On Tuesday, MPS Superintendent Barbara Thompson went out of her way to emphasize that the investigations of the scandal found that grades were changed for "a small number of our students" -- about 200 students "out of about 32,000 students" in the school system. This was, she pointed out, "less than half of 1 percent" of the total number of students. (It's actually about six-tenths of 1 percent, but let's don't quibble too much.)

But is that a fair way of quantifying the extent of the impact of the scandal? I would suggest that it is not.

For instance, the grade changing apparently involved misuse of the state's credit recovery program and remote access learning -- programs generally not available to elementary schools. So counting elementary school students among those not impacted is specious, if not deliberately misleading.

In fact, according to school officials, the scandal involved just three of the system's seven high schools. So perhaps a better way to quantify the extent of the cheating would be to say that it involved "three of seven high schools."

Or you could compare the 200 grade changes to the total number of high school students in the county system -- about 7,750, according to a system spokesman. That would bring the percentage of those affected up from "half of 1 percent" to about 2.5 percent.

But if you really want to compare that 200 number to a more legitimate denominator, you could use the enrollment of the three schools in question --  Lanier,  Lee, and  Jefferson Davis high schools. (A system spokesman issued a statement noting that there were no changes at that school "under the present administration.")

According to a school system spokesman, the combined enrollment of the three schools is 4,882. So you could say that the scandal affected 200 students out of  4,882 students at the schools in question, or about 4 percent.

But the public should remember that a great many of the students at these high schools were earning adequate grades on their own, so there would be no need for administrators to change their grades to make the schools appear more effective. It may not be possible to know just how many students were doing OK, but assume that it was at least half. That would mean that about 8 percent of the students who might have been failing at the three schools had their grades changed.

Mark Twain was fond of pointing out that there were three types of lies -- "lies, damned lies, and statistics." He was making the point that numbers can be used to mislead.

I do not suggest that anyone is lying about the extent of this problem. As noted, there are several ways to quantify the extent of this scandal, and all have some legitimacy. But by emphasizing that grades were changed for only 200 out of 32,000 students, school officials appear to be attempting to spin the numbers to put the scandal in the best light possible.

However, they should realize that it is impossible to make this scandal appear anything but what it is -- a real mess.

Ken Hare was a longtime Alabama newspaper editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for WSFA's web site. Write him at: khare@wsfa.com

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