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Samuel Clemens: 'Figures don’t lie, but liars figure.'

Publication Date: 2011-03-29

Jim Broadway is Publisher, State School News Service, and this is his March 21, 2011 commentary. He offers a good, brief account of how the lies embedded in A Nation at Risk are being repeated today. It's Blame Teachers deja vu.


Back in my lobbying days I was reminded of that quote from Mark Twain when a state senator demanded that I explain why SAT scores had declined from the 1960s to the 1980s despite "our historic increase in education spending"?

I was caught off guard. I didn't know the answer. I didn't even know where the question came from. It bore no relation the bill under consideration.
In retrospect, I realized the senator was referring to a graph that had been included in the 1983 federal publication called A Nation At Risk. It was a crude graph, just a line sloping gently down to represent ACT score trends during that time period.

It would be 1995 before I learned the true answer. It was clearly explained by Bruce Biddle and David Berliner in The Manufactured Crisis, a scholarly examination of many spurious charges against public education launched in A Nation At Risk.

The answer is this: Aggregated SAT scores did decline during those two decades, but when the scores are divided into segments (Berliner and Biddle disaggregated them into quintiles, high to low), average scores within each segment actually increased.

How could that be? Here is how. College-bound students take the SAT. In those years there was a great increase in students going to college. A high percentage of them were first-generation college students, minority and less affluent students.

Understandably, these students' scores generally grouped in the lowest-score quintile.

Consequently, even though the average scores in each quintile rose, the size of the lowest-score quintile soared. That lowered the aggregated average score a bit.

So American educators had two successes -- higher SAT scores by each segment of test-takers and an increase in young people prepared and motivated for higher education â" but A Nation at Risk calculated them into an educational failure.

Out of the blue, A Nation At Risk accused public educators of "a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people." Why did they do that? The U.S. economy was then, as now, in a shambles. Someone needed to take the blame.

I no longer lobby. I've been clean since 1998. But I remain wary of raw data.

The trick used by the writers of A Nation At Risk is very effective and commonly used by liars who figure. You see it today in the rhetoric of those who profit politically by attacking public sector employees as "overpaid" in comparison with the private sector.

Media accounts are full of arguments that public employees need to "adjust to economic reality" and to share sacrifices, especially in their retirement programs, as if they were somehow culpable in the fiscal crises created by policymakers in many states.


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