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Friday, October 31, 2008

My Sister is Homeless: The Trouble with Statistics

Statistics have a real danger and are driven by definitions.

This is a perfect example.  Albany, GA is attempting to get a better definition of how many homeless people live in Albany... an admirable thing.  So, they've redefined homeless:

"For next year, they're redefining what homeless is to include families who may be living with relatives or friends or living in a motel. Organizers say it's important to get an accurate count."

They are going to also count here in Mitchell County.

The problem is this.  My sister is now homeless.

My sister, Sarah, is an amazing graphic designer who moved home to open up her freelance design business and teach online graphic design classes for Savannah College of Art and Design.  She works from morning till night and business is going well.

The apartments available in this puddle of a town are far less than OK, and so, while she saves her money to build a house, she's living at home with Mom and Dad, paying rent, buying groceries, etc.  She's doing very well with her business.

But she's homeless.

The problem is that so many people have an agenda.  In this case, someone wants to make sure the homeless are served, and yet, hasn't really thought through the definition.

And a trick that grant writers have worked is, if you can't get money with the current formula, just redefine something and make yourself a golden ticket.

This is a perfect example:  A study from Canada has just been released that their college drop out rate is being skewed by "switchers" (people who transfer between colleges) and "leavers."  The six year study turned up that:

"Within three years, 40.3 per cent of the college leavers and 54 per cent of the university leavers are back."

So, the statistics are SKEWED.   This is the danger of taking statistics out of context or not examining the underpinnings.  This is exactly WHY we need researchers and peer review at the research level - it is easy to make statistics say what you wish.

English author Rex Stout said:

"There are two kinds of statistics:  the kind you look up and the kind you make up."

A few other quotes on statistics that I turned up that I love:

Statistics are no substitute for judgment”  Henry Clay


He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts - for support rather than illumination”  Andrew Lang


And perhaps a sexist but true quote from Aaron Levenstein -  “Statistics are like a bikini. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.” 

Now, I'm not disparaging statistics en total, however, what I am saying is -- double check into what you read.  When I took statistics in college, my Dad quoted Benjamin Disraeli before I started:

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.

I think this is what concerns me most about NCLB.  I am all for accountability, but I remember when my son got a score back on "environment" in K4 that concerned me.

Then, when I sat down with the teacher, I learned that there were 20 questions -- he missed 2.  One of them was a picture of a person putting  a ticket into a subway turnstile and it asked the child what was happening and gave four choices.  My son got it wrong.

At that time, he was four and, living in south Georgia, had never been on a subway in his life!!! Why would he?  We ride the car, we ride the tractor, we ride the 4 wheeler, but a subway???

So, did I fuss at the teacher because he had a lower than average score on Environment.  My response, "Who on earth cares if he knows that at this point.  I don't."

What some parents want is some artificial belief that their child is better than other kids.  The problem with percentiles is that THEY ARE PERCENTILES.

US parents and educators will only be happy when 100% of the students are are in the top 5th percentile.

We must not substitute statistics for good old common sense and I think we're seeing that right now in many schools who've gone scorehappy (with good reasons - parents are demanding it) and yet, kids don't know how to balance their checkbook, have a strong work ethic, know how to treat others, and actually enjoy going to school.

My sister is NOT homeless and there are some schools NOT meeting AYP that I think may actually be doing a pretty good job.

I can almost guarantee that there are some schools MEETING AYP that are cheating or "messing w/" their numbers.  (Until they started requiring high attendance rates, I know that some of the local schools here told their low perfoming students to stay home during testing.)

So, we DO need test scores -- but when the results replace common sense, I've got a problem with that.

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