Editorial: Reading too much into the numbers

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Mark Twain knew a thing or two about statistics.

Wikimedia Commons / A.F. Bradley

Mark Twain knew a thing or two about statistics.

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

Mark Twain wrote that in his autobiography. He attributed the phrase to Benjamin Disraeli, although its true origin is a matter of some dispute.

Paul F. Velleman of Cornell University wrote that the phrase is commonly used “to suggest dishonest manipulations and interpretations.”

Indeed, statistics are themselves nothing more than objective measurements. The danger comes in interpreting what they mean.

Take the issue of school suspensions.

Data released recently by the Mass. Department of Elementary and Secondary Education show decreases in the numbers of students disciplined, in-school suspensions and out-of-school suspensions in Worcester Public Schools. The number of students disciplined fell from 2,608 to 1,929. In-school suspensions fell from 4.3 percent to 2.8 percent, and out-of-school suspensions dropped from 7.5 percent to 5 percent.

The Telegram & Gazette reported Tuesday, Dec. 23: “The decline in suspensions coincides with the introduction of Chapter 222 of state law on July 1, 2014, which changed how schools are able to dole out student discipline. One of the differences under the new law, for example, is that school principals are now required to talk with a student’s family before handing down a suspension.”

Advocates of Chapter 222 would be quick to point to this data to bolster their claim that the law is a success. The statistics, however, do not support that conclusion.

The data was compiled from School Safety Discipline Reports filed by schools. School personnel may be taking a more conservative approach to incidents that require the filing of such a report. They may also be more proactive in de-escalating issues before they become incidents. It’s also possible students are getting in trouble less frequently.

The data don’t suggest why suspensions are down. All the data show is that they are.

Conversely, opponents of Chapter 222 would point to the data and claim the law is creating a public safety problem by keeping troublemaking students in classrooms. Others argue the law is creating an unfunded mandate that diverts a district’s resources from teaching.

Again, neither of the claims is supported by data. If either argument were true, it would stand to reason achievement (read: test scores) would slip. It would also reasonably lead to an exodus of students, teachers and administrators. Only then could one begin to draw that conclusion.

Reducing suspensions is an objective civic good. More time in classrooms should lead to higher test scores, lower dropout rates and a higher graduation rate.

However, there are well-founded concerns that driving to that goal could have adverse effects.

The number of students disciplined is down, as are the number of in-school and out-of-school suspensions. This is what the data show. On its face this is good news. To know whether it’s truly good news requires a deeper look.

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