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this or that – how can we tell?

August 30, 2010

Either students are more prepared for the challenges they will face in college (as proposed by recent release by ACT – click to see NPR article) or they are not prepared (click to see an alternative read on the same data).

This is one of the biggest challenges of dealing with data – the numbers themselves are often not the answer (except for simple questions like “how tall is Rupert Murdoch?”), but they allow us to come to some conclusion that is (hopefully) supported by the numbers. However, this often means that how we come to understand the data can be biased by our personal beliefs or perspectives on the situation. Sometimes the numbers can be used to support seemingly contradictory positions. The famous quote “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” (origin disputed) captures this sentiment nicely.

So, are students “more prepared”. Yes, if you compare the percentage of students this year passing certain benchmarks set by the ACT education division (these reflect the probability that the student would be able to achieve a B or higher in an introductory college course) to the percentage from past years. This year 24% of the students who took the ACT passed all four benchmarks compared to 23% last year. Are students not prepared? Yes, again. If less than one quarter of the high school graduates taking the ACT appear to be in a position to earn a B in four basic college courses (reflecting English, reading, math, and science), we have a problem. Note that many of these students will not actually go to college, and the standards will vary across the colleges they do attend, but these are not numbers to be proud of.

So, some interesting things to think about in terms of how we use data. And the current challenges we face in the educational system.

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