BusinessCompany NewsLies, damn lies and statistics …

Lies, damn lies and statistics ...

Education ministers, currently under fire for the strange disappearance of a great deal of money for schools, are extremely proud of the following opaque statistic: 75% of 11-year-olds have achieved level 4+ in English - up 10% since 1998.

Yes, it’s the time of year for Key Stage 2 Sats tests, the key numerical indicator by which primary schools are judged, and a testament to the influence of those who believe that everything can be reduced to figures.

The question is how much schools can train for success in particular exams, and whether this is the real reason for the 10% increase. Goodhart’s Law – that any number used as a control will be perverted by those it controls – probably applies equally to exams.

The peculiar thing is that performance in nearly all exams goes up year on year and it can’t always be because of rising teaching standards. It may have something to do with the amount of time desperate schools devote to Sats – or even cramming.

But worst of all, it emerges that Sats pupils who are absent – either because they are ill or because they are truants – are marked low. A low Sats score might actually indicate a flu epidemic.

  • David Boyle is the author of The Tyranny of Numbers (HarperCollins/Flamingo).

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