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Misleading with statistics

Glen GraberSummit County

Jared Polis, former statewide member of the Colorado State Board of Education with a return address in Boulder, recently mailed an unsolicited circular throughout Summit County at his own expense, on the subject of public education. Polis, whose name in Greek is the root word for “politician,” headed two overlaid, not-to-scale graphs with the subtitle “Higher funded students have higher test scores”.In case you read this but didn’t have the time to pay attention to the numbers, you should know that the story is hardly told by his caption. The fact that he’s comparing Average Funding per Student (all students) with Educational Progress Scores of Students from Low-Income Families, from a different year, is only the beginning.First, and most obviously, look at the U.S. Average column and the Colorado column. The average U.S. state in 2003-2004 spent 11.8 percent more per student that Colorado, but the average U.S. student (from a low-income family) scored five points lower (0.5 percent less) than the average Colorado low-income student. (Mr. Polis gives no indication how other students scored; in Summit County, 75.4 percent of students are not low-income, according to Mr. Polis’s definitions. So, higher funded students do not have universally higher test scores, even on the graphs Polis presented for our perusal.)Second, and less obvious, is the matter of degree of difference in the funding and the scores.The top five states in the U.S. spend 98.5 percent more per student that the bottom five states, but their students only score 1.38 percent higher. All other comparisons using Polis’s charts return similar results. The closest comparison, from a standpoint of effective use of increased funding per student, is between the top five U.S. states and the average U.S. state. The top five U.S. states spend 41.2 percent more per student than average; their students score 1.8 percent higher. That’s less than 1 percent gain in scores per 20 percent of increased spending, and that’s the best gain. According to Mr. Polis’s statistics, the public does not get its money’s worth from increased public funding on education.Probably these comparisons aren’t fair. Probably Mr. Polis made a poor choice of statistics to report. Probably the high proportion of English learners in the low-income samples skewed the test scores – a student who has trouble reading the test isn’t going to improve on tests very much, no matter how much money you throw at the school district. Jared Polis needs to be more careful, or more sophisticated, about how he misleads with his statistics. You need to be more careful about believing anything presented to you in the form of simple tables.Write to usThe Summit Daily News welcomes letters to the editor, preferably by e-mail to letters@summitdaily.com. Past letters can be read at http://www.summitdaily.com. All letters must be submitted along with the author’s name, hometown and phone number.


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