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“Lies, damned lies and statistics” (edited version in The Fiji Times, 9 May 2015)

09/05/2015

“Lies, damned lies and statistics”
– Mark Twain (perhaps)

Professor Wadan Narsey
(edited version in The Fiji Times, 9 May 2015)

Educationists know that the quality of a school is not just determined by examination results, but also how well they give children a well-rounded education to help them meet challenges of life (economic, political, and social including culture, the arts, music and sports).

BUT doing well in examinations is the most important passport for the children of the lower classes to get out of poverty (even if a few school dropouts may succeed brilliantly in life).

Hence how well schools do in national examinations has always been of interest to students and their parents, and the schools themselves, even though no Fiji government has ever published comprehensive statistics on school performances.

Which is why the public should have been astonished at the recent press release by the Minister of Education (Dr Mahendra Reddy) and the Ministry of Education, as reported in The Fiji Times of  2 May 2015 giving the “pass rates” for “the top five best performing schools in Fiji”  in the 1914 Year 12 exams.

 The “Pass Rates” given

The statistics given showed that Queen Victoria School was first (with 96.9 per cent pass rate), Jai Narayan College was second (92.1 per cent.) , St Joseph’s Secondary was third (88.5 per cent);  fourth was Labasa College (87.0 per cent), and fifth was Adi Cakobau School (81.5 per cent).

Of course, all these schools are good schools compared to others in Fiji, and the reported “pass rates” are no doubt also correct.

But do these statistics accurately rank the top schools by “academic performance”?

The FT news report obviously convinced one QVS Old Boy to write (Letter to Editor, FT 5 May 2015) that “Once again QVS has proven it is the top school in the country in terms of academic achievements.   No wonder many parents want their sons to be educated at this prestigious school”.

While the Minister and the MoE correctly (or is it craftily?) told the media that these pass rates were not the only indicator of academic achievement, why did they choose to give the top five schools, only by this indicator, which I suggest below, is totally misleading in key respects.

“Pass Rates” or “Averages/Means”

The term “Lies, damned lies and statistics” is often humorously used by intelligent skeptics when so-called “experts” present statistics which do not correctly describe the “truth”.

While most scientists (economic, social, political, and the natural sciences) depend heavily on the use of statistics, good statisticians are always concerned about the deliberate misuse of selectively chosen statistics for alternative agenda.

Usually the motive is crass profits (as when some pharmaceutical firm presents dodgy “experimental results” to prove that some drug is safe in order to earns millions), but most often in every day life, the motive is political expediency.

The mathematics department of University of York (UK) has an interesting article on their webpage on the many possible origins of this phrase, as a warning to their students not to misuse statistics: http://www.york.ac.uk/depts/maths/histstat/lies.htm

The article also gives alternative phrases meaning the same thing: “fibs, lies and statistics” or “liars, damned liars, and expert witnesses” or “liars, outrageous liars, and scientific experts”.

It is a piteous sign of our times that no school principal or parent challenged Dr Reddy and the MoE on their press release and their dubious use of “pass rates” as an indicator of academic achievement.

Education assessment experts know that “pass rates” can be artificially increased, by deliberately choosing a low pass mark standard, which, if low enough, can give even a mediocre school a 100% pass rate, sometimes even higher than some genuinely excellent school.

Statisticians know that far more representative are the “average or mean marks” for schools which takes the full range of marks into account or sometimes better, are  “median marks” (the middle score) which are not influenced by the extreme high or low individual results.

What average exam marks reveal

A previous Minister for Education gave me rare access to the complete national examination results for 2003 to 2007, for all students and all schools, by various levels.

For mathematics FSLC in 2007, the “top” five schools according to Dr Reddy and the MoE had average scores of 56, 60, 64, 71 and 75.  Three of them were hardly in the same league as the other two.

You can imagine the distribution of marks around these average or mean marks around these means.

Even though some schools may have improved (and some worsened) since then, I doubt very much if the school relativities have changed much.

Going by averages or means, the top five schools between 2003 and 2007 usually included (in no particular order), Labasa College, Mahatma Gandhi HS, Natabua High School,  Xavier College, and Yat Sen (even if some parents of students at these schools worry quite legitimately about their lack of involvement in arts, music and sports).

Other schools may have joined them at the top.

The statistics I am giving should be no surprise to knowledgeable educationists and school principals, or  even Dr Reddy and the Ministry of Education, who have all this data at their finger-tips, right up to 2014.

So why did the Minister and the Ministry of Education choose to give only limited statistics on ‘pass rates’ which can and do mislead the public who are not familiar with education statistics?

 The maritime students bungle

Was Dr Reddy’s press release merely political back-peddling after disturbing the hornets’ nest with his recent announcement, also without consultation, that maritime students, to improve heir academic performance, would be given preferential access to the allegedly “elite” QVS, RKS and ACS schools?

By now, he may have been forced to admit that QVS, RKS and ACS have enrolled students from all classes, including the poorest families, urban and rural.

These schools have also built up valuable historical traditions of enrolling successive generations from the same families,  as of course have done other schools such as Marist, Grammar and Yat Sen (without any challenge from the MoE despite their breaking school zoning rules).

Dr Reddy may also have been convinced by the intelligent public that sending maritime students to these boarding schools on Viti Levu, may not be the best sustainable way to improve their academic performance.

So the mind boggles why he tried this bumbling strategy in the first place, although I suspect that his use of the word “elite” and the political agenda of his superiors, gives the game away. In the ‘new Fiji’ the Bainimarama Government has no place for traditional independent cultures (including that in education, which Bainimarama, Khaiyum and Dr Mahendra Reddy calls ‘elites’) that are capable of standing up to their propaganda and political machinations.  The irony is that Bainimarama and many of his military colleagues have come up in the system via some of these very traditional cultures and schools, which are to be discarded now that they no longer have any use for them.

Need for consultation

While my current academic work unfortunately precludes me from writing my usual columns for The Fiji Times, I have made an exception here because I am deeply disturbed that our hitherto good education system, built up by mostly private education authorities with decades of hard work, continues to be destabilized and harmed by dictatorial MoE policy decisions, based on inadequate data and lack of understanding of the issues.

I have agreed with Dr Reddy in his reversal of the Bainimarama Government’s decision to end the national examinations, which I argued several years ago, and with many Letters to the Editor subsequently.
https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/national-examinations-you-dont-know-what-you-have-got-till-it-is-gone-the-fiji-times-27-february-2010/

I have also agreed with Dr Reddy in his decision to end the scaling of marks: my data analysis showed years ago that such scaling differed from school to school by different percentages, artificially increased pass rates, and worst of all, hid any evidence there was of declining (or improving) standards in some subject areas. I had also pointed this out in a consultancy report for the Ministry of Education, through AusAID,
https://narseyonfiji.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/key-issues-in-academic-outcomes-in-fiji-annex-f-icr-2010.pdf

There is also much more advice given here (and in the appendices which are all on my blogsite: just search with the word “education”.https://narseyonfiji.wordpress.com/2012/04/15/fiji-education-sector-project-independent-completion-report-by-bill-pennington-nelson-ireland-and-wadan-narsey-2010/

My advice to the Minister of Education (coming through The Fiji Times, and costing him nothing as opposed to the millions he pays to the donor-funded foreign consultants) is that he should be rethinking many other harmful MoE and Bainimarama Government policies.

(a) school zoning (which even the PS Education admits is not working)

(b) banning of independent fund-raising by schools

(c) the forced retirement age for teachers at age 55, losing experienced principals and teachers (but not applied to certain Government Ministers and their relatives).

(d) dictatorial appointment of school principals and teachers by the MoE

(e) imposition of an inappropriate simplistic formula to reward teachers and schools, based partly on their students’ exam results: another can of worms or Pandora’s Box that the Minister of Education insists on  opening, as he revels in his incredibly high profile and public media exposure as the latest rising star in the Bainimarama Government.

The Minister might wish to first consult with school managements, principals and teachers associations, and the parents who tragically all continue their pathetic apathy to government measures which are destroying their children’s education.

Lastly, the public would be well advised that when the Minister of Education (or the government) craftily throw out a few selective education statistics, they should first ask if the numbers are “truthful” or whether they fall in the category “lies, damned lies, and statistics”.

[On the same day that this above article appeared in The Fiji Times, there was also another one written independently by Dr Ropate Qalo, ‘Ranking schools and improving students’ which can be read here:
http://www.fijitimes.com/story.aspx?id=305118

Dr Qalo’s article was obviously in response to the same dismay I felt at the press release by the Minister of Education. Dr Qalo not only delves deeper into other issues that impact on student performance, such as school management and the importance of subject teachers, but also the dangers of forcing vulnerable young students into boarding schools, away from the safety and security of their homes as day students.]

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