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Misrepresentation in a national newspaper

Posted by Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past President on 20 February 2016

Page 3 of The Australian of Thursday 11 February 2016 included a story with a headline that asserted "One in two teens fail reading, maths". In response, I submitted the letter below:

Maths weakness widespread

Your education editor interprets an OECD report to open her story with the claim that "half of Australia's high school students have flunked the minimum international standard in maths, reading or science by the age of 15" ("One in two teens fail reading, maths", Feb 11).

The figures reported in the story do not support this conclusion. A side bar headed "low-performing 15-year-old students" shows Australia's scores as 20% for maths, 14% for reading, and 14% for science. It is not logical to add these three figures because, across the country, many of the same students would feature in each of these low-performing groups.

This embarrassing story illustrates that some of the paper's staff have a problem with numeracy. Is the school system to blame for this?

And no, I don't really expect that this letter has any chance of publication.

Garry Collins

When the letter, needless to say, was not published I sent this email to the journalist, Natasha Bita. 

Feedback on your "One in two teens fail reading, maths" story

Dear Ms Bita

Below, by way of feedback, is the letter that I submitted in response to your story on Page 3 of Thursday's edition.

Here I inserted the letter above.

And there I was starting to think that The Australian had moved on from its long standing practice of routinely misrepresenting aspects of school education in the country.

Garry Collins
Immediate Past President, English Teachers Association of Queensland (ETAQ) and the Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE)

Ms Bita replied:

Hello Garry,

Lovely to hear from you again.

To clarify, the OECD figures show that 56,673 Australian students were low-performers in maths, 41,000 in reading and 39,322 in science. This adds up to 137,000 students - roughly half the total number of 15-year-old students.

Have a great weekend,

Natasha

And I then responded

Natasha

You do not seem to grasp that it is inappropriate to add such figures or the percentage equivalents. This would only be valid if you could guarantee that no students featured in more than one group. Otherwise, you would be counting the same students two or three times. Is your message below just playing a straight bat to any criticism or do you genuinely not understand this point?

I am also disappointed to note that, towards the end of the story, you identify Kevin Donnelly as "the executive director of the Education Standards Institute" without pointing out to readers that this impressive sounding organization is really just Dr Donnelly. You do understand, I hope, that it is just a one-man operation. Is this lazy journalism or are you deliberately seeking to mislead readers?

Incidentally, who promoted him from plain "director" to "executive director"? And how many professional staff do you think Donnelly directs in that important-sounding role?

Stories like the one on Thursday are the reason that many people who work in education refuse on principle to buy The Australian. I suppose it is just as well that the paper doesn't aspire to be a profit-making concern.

Garry Collins

I also responded as shown below to another letter in the paper on the same general topic.

Statistics interpretation error repeated

David Syme (Letters, 13/2) writes that "half of Australia's high school students have flunked the minimum international standards in maths and reading by the age of 15". In doing so, he repeats the invalid claim made by the education editor ("One in two teens fail reading, maths", 11/2) and shows that his grasp of basic statistics is as flawed as hers.

Author: Garry Collins, ETAQ Immediate Past President
About: Garry Collins was ETAQ President from mid July 2005 to 15 March 2014. He taught English in state high schools for around 35 years and now tutors in English curriculum courses in the School of Education at the University of Queensland.
Tags: General news

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