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Sunday, August 20, 2006

Lake Wobegon Effect in ACTion

In 1987 a survey of educational departments resulted in all 50 states claiming their children to be above average in test scores for the USA. This is a common fallacy that is defined in Wikipedia as the Lake Wobegon Effect after the mythical town in Minnesota, where according to author Garrison Keillor, all women are strong, the men good looking, and their children above average. I see the Lake Wobegon Effect manifested in reports on this year's ACT college-assessment scores. My daily newspaper, the Saint Paul Pioneer Press, reported on August 16 that "Minnesota...[is] best at college test." They based this ranking on the percent passing all four benchmark scores.* Counteracting this, State Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster reports "Overall, Wisconsin beat the nation on the ACT.” Then again the Deseret Morning News reports "Utah tops U.S. on ACT." I cannot see how any of these self-congratulatory reports can be inferred from the actual 2006 Average ACT Scores by State. However, I suppose someone might explain the necessary contortions for patting themselves on the back. The ACT statistics actually back up the Boston Globe pronouncement that "Massachusetts' class of 2006 scored the highest of any state on the ACT math exam and scored behind only Connecticut on the overall exam." However, it turns out only 13 percent of high school graduates took this test versus well over 50 percent in Minnesota, Wisconsin and other midwestern USA states that rely on the ACT for screening college applicants. (I believe that the eastern states use the SAT exam.) Sorting the ACT scores on the average composite score (a handy feature offered at their web site), I see that all seven states ahead of Minnesota had fewer that 20% of their graduates taking the test, so I have no qualms saying that my home state is the smartest of all!

*PS. I am very alarmed at the poor results for science (37%) and math (52%) relative to english (76%) and reading (62%). :(


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