Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Outcome measures, and data skepticism, both in the NY Times

Yesterday's "On Education" column in the New York Times, by Michael Winerip, about the efforts by Florida's education officials to raise the standards students have to meet during testing, is a good illustration of how important it is to remember that establishing and using outcome measures is an iterative process. That is, you don't just identify outcome measures, set them in concrete, and look at them year after year. You look at each year's results, and you compare changes year to year. When you have enough data, you can compare changes from, say, the last two years with changes five, or even 10, years ago. You have to look at whether the measures are telling you what you want to know - or even if they're telling you what you think they're telling you. Unfortunately, Florida changed the standards, but not the scoring system, meaning that many fewer students passed. I've written about this issue before, here, for example.

Florida, Winerip makes clear, has many problems with its testing system. According to his column, it's not clear that the tests actually show competency in reading (though I would like to know more). The lesson I draw for my clients is that you can't simply stop and rest once you have a measurement system in place.

There's a good "On the Road" column in today's Times. In it, Joe Sharkey discusses results from two contradictory studies - one showing that anger in the air is increasing at distressing rates, the other that it is decreasing. Sharkey says:
There are at least two ways to explain the discrepancy. One is that perhaps Americans have become the world’s best-behaved airline passengers — which is at least possible. The other is that the F.A.A. and the Air Transport Association have different definitions of what constitutes “unruly behavior.”
This appears to be the case (though I rather liked the first explanation).
The F.A.A.’s annual unruly behavior statistics come from official reports filed by flight attendants or pilots of a passenger “interfering with the duties of a crew member” for incidents that do not involve security threats. That is a violation of federal law, with potential criminal penalties.
But the International Air Transport Association defines unruly passengers as those who “fail to respect the rules of conduct on board aircraft or to follow the instructions of crew members, and thereby disrupt the good order,” . . .
The IATA report, he adds, may include events that "reflect only a flight attendant's annoyance."

It's a good example of critical thinking - both because Sharkey didn't accept an initial news report at face value, and because he points out that the definitions, and who is categorizing events, matter. 

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