School critic group fails fairness test

Nathan-on-Education-newA Minnesota group calling itself “Better Ed” should “know better” than to distribute misleading statistics. Perhaps even worse than the original act of distributing a postcard with inaccurate statistics is an email acknowledgement that these folks know the statistics are not accurate.

Here’s the story, along with reactions from a few Minnesota superintendents whose high schools are highlighted on Better Ed’s postcard.

Nineteen high schools were named: Apple Valley, Bloomington Jefferson, Burnsville, Chaska, Eagan, Eden Prairie, Edina, Hopkins, Minnetonka, Maple Grove, Minneapolis South and Southwest, Mound-Westonka, Orono, Rosemount, St. Louis Park, Sibley, Wayzata and Woodbury.

Those high schools were cited on a postcard and in an email that Better Ed distributed with a headline, “They told me I was ready…” and a picture of a youngster who looks sad.

The postcard lists statistics titled, “Public High School Graduates Who Need Remedial Classes in College.” The words “Remedial Classes” are in red.

The statistics come from a report I’ve written about, “Getting Prepared, 2011,” produced by the University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System.

The Getting Prepared report describes experiences of Minnesota high school students who graduated from high school in 2005-2008 and entered a Minnesota public college or university within two years of graduating and experiences of 2009 Minnesota public high school graduates who entered a Minnesota public college or university within one year of graduation. All public high schools are included, except those that had five or fewer students who took remedial (aka “developmental”) courses.

Better Ed’s mistake is in badly misrepresenting the percentage of “public high school graduates who need remedial classes in college.”

Their figures are inaccurate, first, because the Getting Prepared report covers only Minnesota public colleges and universities. So it does not cover the Minnesota private or out-of-state public or private colleges that many Minnesota high school graduates attend.

In addition, the postcard’s report inaccurately describes the percentage of graduates who took remedial courses from each of 19 high schools. For example, the postcard states that 23 percent of Edina’s graduates need to take remedial courses in college. The Getting Prepared report actually says that 8 percent, not 23, of Edina’s graduates took remedial courses at a Minnesota public college or university.

Why this huge difference? The postcard inaccurately uses figures from the report.

So, for example, Getting Prepared found that 2,599 students graduated from Edina High School in 2005-2009. Of those 2,599 students, 892 (34 percent) enrolled in a Minnesota public college or university. Of those 892, 208 (23 percent of 892, not of the 2,599) took one or more remedial courses. But that’s 8 percent of the overall Edina graduate pool (2,599), which is what Better Ed says it is describing. It is actually 23 percent of the Edina graduates 2005-2009 who entered a Minnesota public college or university and took at least one remedial class. This is the same calculation for all the schools listed.

The postcard is being both mailed and emailed. In the emailed card, Better Ed Director Daniel J. Lattier wrote, in part, “The percentages only refer to those graduates who attend in-state public colleges and universities.”

So he should know this assertion on the postcard is not accurate. Lattier defended Better Ed’s assertions by citing national, not Minnesota, statistics.

“As you can see in the email we sent out below, we are aware of the nuances of the report,” said Lattier. “We have a limited amount of space on these postcards … the space did not allow for a significant qualification of the numbers.”

The Getting Prepared report showed that 53 percent of students who graduated in 2008 entered a Minnesota public college or university within two years of graduating from high school. Of those students, 40 percent took one or more remedial courses. So the figures in the Star Tribune column also need clarification.

Better Ed’s misuse of the data is another reminder that, as state law requires, the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) should produce the report yearly.

Better Ed failed the fairness test.

Joe Nathan directs the Center for School Change. He can be reached at [email protected].

  • tmac

    “Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable.”

    Mark Twain.