Sorting the spin from the facts of exam tables;Letter

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Numbers can deceive, particularly when subjected to human interpretation.

In your article of June 12 ("The gap according to Woodhead is widening") you report statistics cited by the Office for Standards in Education. The average GCSE points score for the top 10 per cent of schools (is this, in the first place, a wise form of measurement?) in 1992 was apparently 46.1, while for the bottom 10 per cent it was 15.7. Comparative figures for 1996 were 51.8 and 19.8. respectively.

The "spin'' on these figures was in the headline - the gap is widening, which indeed it is, from 30.4. to 32.

However, the ratio of bottom to top has improved from 0.34 in 1992 to 0.38 in 1996. Or, to put it another way, the improvement in the top 10 per cent from 46.1 to 51.8 is a miserly 12 per cent by comparison with the improvement in the bottom 10 per cent from 15.7 to 19.8, or a very respectable 26 per cent.

You are right in your editorial, therefore, to take issue with the OFSTED spin.

All these figures, calculated to the nth decimal place, conspire to present a spurious objectivity which must seriously be questioned. We are, after all, dealing with human marking of examinations taken by humans, compared over time, in changing circumstances - an inexact science at best.

My point is not to assert that numbers, in themselves, tell lies. They do not. However, their interpretation must be subject to the severest scrutiny, and I am afraid that such scrutiny is too often lacking.

In the end, the lasting impression is created not by the figures but by the headline. It is a pity that Mr Woodhead chose to emphasise a negative interpretation in the face of a more obvious positive one.

Peter Hunter Chairman, Education Committee Somerset County Council

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