Tuesday, October 10, 2006

lies, damned lies, and statistics

Is YSU really 12th in the nation in Civic Education?

Today's Business Journal contains a story on this topic (sorry, no links to the story. they became a pay site as of last week) as well as this story in the Youngstown State eUpdate. The articles are titled "YSU 12th in Civic Education" and "YSU Ranks High in National Civic Education Study" respectively.

Both articles begin: Youngstown State University ranks 12th in the nation, above schools such as Yale, Georgetown and Duke, in a new study that measures how much colleges and universities are adding to their graduates’ understanding of America’s history and government. “This study provides independent confirmation of the fact that students are getting real value for their tuition dollars,” said Paul Sracic, political science professor and coordinator of general education at YSU.

Well, kinda...

Except if you really look at the numbers in the report, I think a different, less optimistic conclusion can be reached. But then, like all statistics, it depends on how you look at them.

Let's start with the methodology of this experiment: An organization, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, surveyed 14,000 randomly selected freshman and seniors at 50 universities across the nation. Each student was given a quiz with 60 questions about American history, government and the market economy. So about 140 freshman and 140 seniors were asked the quiz at each university, and their scores were averaged to assist with creating comparisons between universities.

So true enough, the difference between the average freshman score and the average senior score at Youngstown State was an increase in 4.9 percentage points. For Yale the scores decreased over time by 1.5%, for Georgetown the scores decreased by 1.2%, and at Duke the scores decreased by 2.3%. You can access the entire chart with the means scoring here.

And so, Youngstown State, when compared to the other 49 universities in the study, ranked 12th. Point taken.


But let's look at this chart in a different way: The average score for a senior at YSU taking the test was 42.5%. At Yale, the average score was a much higher 68.3%, Georgetown's average score was 67.9%, and Duke's average score was 58.3%.

In fact, compared to the other 49 universities in the study, only 4 score worse than YSU.

So perhaps the more accurate title of the story should have been;
"YSU students score in bottom 10% for Civic Education"

What is a little disconcerting is how much I have heard this study used by various faculty and adminstration members at Youngstown State in the past few weeks. While it may be true that students are getting a real deal for their tuition dollars, and it may be true that YSU students learn a great deal more in civic education while attending school here, it is definitely not true that on average, YSU students score higher on these tests and are better than other universities.

The headlines in these articles may lead you to believe otherwise.

And as usual, lies, damned lies, and statistics are in the mind of the beholder.

That being said, there are things that YSU does kick butt at. Their undergraduate mathematics program in one of the best in the country and they win many awards throughout the nation during mathematical modeling competitions and scientific conferences. Many of the graduates of that program have been awarded their PhDs and teach at the highest levels of mathematical scholarship and are engaged in cutting-edge math research. And the university does a fine job of promoting their excellence.

The same can be said for many other departmental programs, too numerous to fully mention here. So perhaps while the average entering student may score lower on their test scores, people who appreciate a good education can surely find one at Youngstown.

I would like to publically affirm the quality education I gained at Youngstown State. I would not trade my time there for any other, as many of the faculty I encountered at YSU are simply fantastic teachers and researchers. I am sure I could have also had a good undergraduate experience at Yale, Georgetown, or Duke as well, but meeting others in my field across the country in graduate school and research laboratories, I can say with all honesty that the education and preparation from Youngstown served me and my other classmates extremely well.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That story reminds me of the lewis black story/comedy routine about how Georgia went from 50th place to 49th place in average SAT scores last year.

He was like "great, they just went from shitty . . . to crappy . . . but at least they improved!"

- love your blog, btw