School critic group fails fairness test

A 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, including Apple Valley, Burnsville, Eagan and Rosemount.

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 from 19 area high schools, titling those statistics “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.” The University of Minnesota and the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System produced the study.

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. The report as a PDF can be found online at http://bit.ly/1bPf6uk.

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. Thus, Better Ed’s postcard is wrong: We don’t know overall how many or what percentage of graduates from these high schools took remedial courses.

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. The postcard says 41 percent of Minneapolis Southwest High School graduates took remedial courses on entering a Minnesota public college or university. The actual figure for Southwest is 18 percent.

Why this huge difference – 23 percent versus 8 percent, 41 percent versus 18 percent? 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.

Better Ed’s postcard says it is listing the percentage of “Public High School Graduates Who Need Remedial Classes in College.” No it’s not.

The postcard is being distributed both directly through the mail and via email. Better Ed officials declined to tell me how many postcards were mailed. In text below 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: “Public High School Graduates Who Need Remedial Classes in College.” Lattier defended Better Ed’s assertions by citing national, not Minnesota, statistics.

In a subsequent email responding to questions about the postcard, Lattier wrote, in part: “As you can see in the email we sent out below, we are aware of the nuances of the report. We have a limited amount of space on these postcards, and decided as a staff that the space did not allow for a significant qualification of the numbers.”

In a later email, Devin Foley, Better Ed president, wrote in part: “With our postcard we merely joined with the voices of other concerned community leaders, such as the DFL chairs of the Education Finance and Education Policy committees — Paul Marquart and Carlos Mariani — who bemoaned the situation of ‘almost half of our graduates needing to take remedial classes upon entering college.’ This quote appeared in a longer column published last September in the Star Tribune.”

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. But “two wrongs don’t make a right.”

I asked several officials from districts named on the postcard to comment.

Mark Parr, director of secondary education for the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan School District, responded: “We understand that some students will need remediation upon entering a post-secondary institution. We also understand that there are inconsistent reports of what percentages of students require remediation. Our goal is and will always be to prepare students to the best of our ability for college and career readiness. We continuously strive to improve our instructional methods in that regard. We encourage our students to consider enrollment into a post-high school institution as well as encourage them to be as prepared as possible for that kind of rigor.”

Ironically, Better Ed’s email also provided a link to a column that I wrote about this report in December for these newspapers. Yes, as I wrote, too many Minnesota high school graduates take remedial courses on entering our public colleges and universities. But it is not nearly as high a percentage of the total number of graduates as Better Ed reports.

Better Ed’s use (or, I think, misuse) of the data is another reminder that, as state law requires, the Minnesota Department of Education should produce the report yearly. (The last available report was issued in 2011.)

Schools, students and educators deserve accurate descriptions of their accomplishments and problems. Better Ed failed the fairness test.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome, joe@centerforschoolchange.org. Columns reflect the opinion of the author.

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