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Daily Howler: Back home on our sprawling campus, we review the week's oddest report
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THE CAUSEWAYS HOLD! Back home on our sprawling campus, we review the week’s oddest report: // link // print // previous // next //
FRIDAY, AUGUST 25, 2006

THE CAUSEWAYS HOLD: Sadly, the bridges and causeways all held as we made our way home from New Castle (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 8/21/06), and today we find ourselves back with the analysts on our sprawling Baltimore campus. Today, we’ll merely note the press report—from the Boston Globe—which puzzled us most this past week.

As a point of reference, let’s start with this report from Wednesday’s New York Times, written by Diana Jean Schemo. Headline: “Study of Test Scores Finds Charter Schools Lagging.” Uh-oh! In yet another bunch of tests, public school kids did somewhat better than their charter school counterparts. Here’s the opening paragraph:
SCHEMO (8/23/06): Fourth graders in traditional public schools did significantly better in reading and math than comparable children attending charter schools, according to a report released on Tuesday by the Federal Education Department.
The key word there is “comparable.” This study examined math and reading scores from the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress—comparing test scores achieved by kids who come from similar backgrounds. In his own AP report, Stephen Ohlemacher made this elementary point clear, early on:
OHLEMACHER (8/22/06): Fourth-graders in traditional public schools are doing better in both reading and math than students in charter schools, the government says in a report fueling fresh debate over school choice.

Tuesday's report said fourth-graders in regular public schools scored an average of 5.2 points better in reading than students in charter schools on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Students in traditional schools scored an average of 5.8 points better in math.

Even when students' race, income and learning disabilities were taken into account, students in traditional schools fared better than those in charter schools.

Charter school opponents said the findings show that the schools are a failing experiment that drains resources from traditional public schools. Charter school supporters called the report flawed and outdated and said charters improve public education by creating competition.
Often, kids who go to private or charter schools may come from different backgrounds than those who attend public schools. And so, as Ohlemacher was careful to note (right in his third paragraph), this study took race, family income and learning disabilities into account when it made its comparisons. Absent this info, it wouldn’t be clear if this study had much to tell us. Schemo and Ohlemacher were both careful to make this key point early on.

But for ourselves, we were stuck in downtown Portsmouth on Wednesday morning, reading the Boston Globe. And uh-oh! The paper did run the AP’s report by Ohlemacher. But good grief! The paper omitted that critical third paragraph! Here’s the thin gruel we were handed:
OHLEMACHER/BOSTON GLOBE VERSION (8/23/06): Fourth-graders in traditional public schools are doing better in both reading and math than students in charter schools, the government says in a report fueling fresh debate over school choice.

Tuesday's report said fourth-graders in regular public schools scored an average of 5.2 points better in reading than students in charter schools on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress test. Students in traditional schools scored an average of 5.8 points better in math.

Charter school opponents said the findings show that the schools are a failing experiment that drains resources from traditional public schools. Charter school supporters called the report flawed and outdated and said charters improve public education by creating competition.
Paragraph 3 had been edited out. We read the whole thing, trying to see if the study had adjusted for matters like race and family income. But nothing in the Boston Globe version of Ohlemacher’s story addressed this elementary point. We had to wait till we read the Times to see this basic matter made clear. And we had to wait till we returned to our desk to see that Ohlemacher’s original story had in fact addressed this key point.

This was unfortunate editing. Globe readers were left with a crude bumper sticker—the charter school kids didn’t do quite as well. But if those readers knew even a small bit about this topic, they’d have been puzzled and frustrated, as we were. And someone confronting this topic for the first time was robbed of an utterly basic distinction. You really can’t follow this unfolding story unless you realize that studies like this one have to look at “comparable children.” Schemo placed the concept in paragraph 1; Ohlemacher had it in paragraph 3. But the Boston Globe deep-sixed the whole thing! Result? As we took those bridges and causeways back to New Castle, we sullenly pondered the fate of the world.

THE CHAOS SPREADS: Looking further on Nexis, we see that Ohlemacher filed three reports on this subject on Tuesday. Above, we’ve quoted from his second report, the one which ran, in edited form, in the Globe. (We’ve quoted from it just as it appears on Nexis.) But searching on Google, we see that many news orgs ran this report without that crucial third paragraph. (For example, here is the Yahoo post.) It wasn’t just the Globe whose readers had reason to be puzzled/frustrated.

YOU’RE RIGHT: You’re right! Ohlemacher’s second paragraph is the one which doesn’t make much sense. According to Ohlemacher, “fourth-graders in regular public schools scored an average of 5.2 points better in reading than students in charter schools on the 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress test.” But that doesn’t really tell you much—unless you understand the scale against which that 5-point difference is measured. 5.2 points? Is that a lot or a little? Ohlemacher’s full report doesn’t say. The Globe disappeared the wrong paragraph.