Number spin minimizes grade-change impact

MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Often when journalistsdeal with issues that involve numbers, they struggle to quantify the impact ofthose issues in ways that are simple but not misleading. A headline thatshouts, "Murders in Community Double" can be perfectly accurate, butalso misleading if the number of murders went up from one last month to twothis month.

Similarly, public officials can use numbers in ways thattend to maximize the perception of the impact of issues that make them lookgood, and to minimize the perception of the impact of issues that make themlook bad.

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

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

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

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

In fact, according to school officials, the scandalinvolved just three of the system's seven high schools. So perhaps a better wayto 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 totalnumber of high school students in the county system -- about 7,750, accordingto a system spokesman. That would bring the percentage of those affected upfrom "half of 1 percent" to about 2.5 percent.

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

According to aschool 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, orabout 4 percent.

But the publicshould remember that a great many of the students at these high schools wereearning adequate grades on their own, so there would be no need foradministrators 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 assumethat it was at least half. That would mean that about 8 percent of the studentswho might have been failing at the three schools had their grades changed.

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

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

However, they should realize that it is impossible tomake 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:

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