How education data gets spun

As Mark Twain noted, “Facts are stubborn, but statistics are more pliable.” In this piece we learn how two different narratives have been spun from statistics on high school graduation rates and charter schools. It was written by Bob Sikes, author of the Scathing Purple Musings blog. A former New York Mets assistant athletic director — including for the fabled 1986 World Series champions — he now teaches high school in Florida.

By Bob Sikes

It should come as no surprise to anyone that the Florida Department of Education would quickly respond to a U.S. Department of Education report which found Florida graduation rates to be, well, abysmal.  It took four days. Lets compare the two reports.

On Monday, Gradebook’s Jeff Solocheck wrote this of the federal report:

The new federal comparison, from 2010-11, doesn’t paint a pretty picture for Florida. For all students, Florida’s graduation rate was 71 percent, lower than all but five states (Alaska, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico and Oregon) and the District of Columbia.

 

The state’s rates for minority groups were lower than the total — 69 percent of Hispanics and 59 percent of African-Americans. In comparison to other states, Florida’s Hispanic graduation rate surpassed that of 17 states and D.C., while its African-American graduation rate was better than five states and D.C.

Orlando Sentinel education reporter Leslie Postal wrote this yesterday:

Florida’s high school graduation rate for 2012 was 74.5 percent, an “unprecedented” jump from the previous year, according to the Florida Department of Education.

The graduation rate — calculated using a new federal formula — is 3.9 percentage points higher than last year’s rate 70.6 percent. That is the largest, single-year increase since 2003, using the federal calculation, the department said.

 

State officials said they were delighted, particularly with the hikes in graduation rates for black and Hispanic students, who have lagged behind when it comes to earning diplomas.

Florida’s graduation rate last year, however, was among the lowest in the nation, according to federal data on most states. Based on 2011 data, Florida’s rate of about 71 percent was better than that of only five other states.

The state’s high schools have been waiting for their grades for eight months, yet the Florida Department of Education was able to churn out this past year’s graduation numbers in the matter of hours. How convenient.

Meanwhile a one-time charter school owner turned charter school bureaucrat quickly generated favorable data for state charter schools. On November 15, State Impact reporter John O’Connor wrote of UCF professor Stanley Smith research which concluded that the state’s charter schools were not performing as well as public schools. Just six days later, Adam Miller, the FDOE’s charter school director released a contrary report.

Miller, who couldn’t explain the difference between his and Smith’s report, said “”we’ve got some phenomenal charter schools across the state that are providing parents with the opportunity to send their kids to a high quality school that meets  the needs of their child.”

Smith whose study factored in poverty, told StateImpact reporter Gina Jordan Miller’s study “poorly done” and “biased.”

Can Floridians trust what the state Department of Education is telling them? They can sure churn out favorable data in a hurry as it’s been known for a long time that Jeb Bush’s foundations and the education department work together on message and narrative. The education department’s July spin over what happened when mistakes were made in school grades was never pursued by reporters.  The summer’s  Republican presidential convention and the fall’s presidential contest are over.  Light will shine again on the education department’s competence. Perhaps its time Floridians find out whether of not the people who run the department are more focused on an agenda than they are on schools and children.

 

Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
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Valerie Strauss | November 30, 2012