July 31, 2006

The Art of Spin

spin -- "a usually pejorative term signifying a heavily biased portrayal in one's own favor of an event or situation. While traditional public relations may also rely on creative presentation of the facts, 'spin' often, though not always, implies disingenuous, deceptive and/or highly manipulative tactics."

That's from Wikipedia. And, here's an example from the Philadelphia Inquirer of the all-too-typical spin we get when education journalists report test score results, especially when those test score results are from urban areas.

The headline blares: City schools show gains for 5th year.

The subhead screams: PSSA test scores marked progress, especially at the high school level, but there were still trouble spots.This is highly misleading, to say the least.

Philadelphia schools may have "show[ed] gains" for five consecutive years which "marked progress"; however, what we don't learn until paragraph two is that "fewer than half of the district's students in the tested grades [are] performing at advanced or proficient levels."

And, we don't learn until paragraph ten that "fewer than half," in Inquirer lingo, means:

"only a third of the district's 11th graders perform at advanced or proficient levels in reading, and nearly 27 percent in math."

This is called "burying the lead" in journalist-speak.

Yes, Philadelphia schools have made some small gains in recent years (whether those gains are real or a matter of fiddling with the tests is unknown); but, is that really what the story is about?

Isn't the real story that despite five years of "gains" only 33% (in reading) and 27% (in math) of Philadelphia students passed the test. These pass rates are abysmal by any standard. They are especially abysmal when you consider how easy the Pennsylvania test really is.

The headline "City schools show gains for 5th year" doesn't do the facts justice.

How about:

Despite small gains, less than a third of City School students in 11th grade (at least the ones who haven't dropped out yet) pass PSSA test.

Or better yet:

Despite spending over $13k per student, less than a third of 11th grade City School students pass PSSA test, up slightly from last year.

A little longish perhaps, but at least it's accurate.