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The [Wednesday] Papers

Average ACT scores for Chicago and Illinois high school students edged up again this year, according to data released on Tuesday. The Sun-Times focused on the city results, in a story that more closely resembled something coming from a beginning journalism student than a veteran reporter at a major metropolitan newspaper, while the Tribune focused on statewide results in a much more sophisticated, but still unsatisfactory, examination.

In the Sun-Times, Kate Grossman reports that "Since 2002, Chicago's average ACT composite score has increased at twice the state rate and three times the national rate."


A closer look, however, reveals how rates of increase can seem dramatic when dealing with small numbers. Chicago's ACT scores have risen in the time frame cited by Grossman from 16.5 to 17.4 - less than a full point. During the same time period, state scores have risen from 20.1 to 20.5. So the city's scores have risen by 9/10 of a point, while state scores have risen by 4/10 of a point. That may be twice the state rate, but if the city scores had risen 2/10 of a point and the state scores 1/10 of a point, that would also be twice the state rate. (During the same time frame, nationwide scores rose from 20.8 to 21.1.)

The hyperbole continues with schools "CEO" Arne Duncan saying, "This is further confirmation that the district is getting dramatically better."

Aside from wondering why a reporter would put such a useless quote in the paper, my reaction is: Really? Dramatically better?

The Tribune is more helpful to the reader, stating near the top of its story that "The uptick in the state scores might seem small, but ACT officials said the gain is notable because so many students took the exam and it's difficult to move a score with such a large and diverse population."


But deep into the Tribune story we learn that the nationwide ACT average is the highest it's been in 15 years. Scores are up everywhere. In fact, this year's increase nationwide was the largest in two decades.

That doesn't mean Chicago's schools haven't improved. It means we don't really know. Maybe the nation's schoolkids as a whole got smarter last year. Or maybe teachers did a better job teaching to the test. Or maybe the test was just a smidgen easier. The ACT folks have another possible explanation for the national rise. "Richard Ferguson, chief executive of the company in Iowa City, Iowa, said some of the improvement may come from the ACT's growing popularity among high-achieving students in states where the rival SAT exam has been more traditional," according to "ACT Scores Are Best In 20 Years, With A Catch," in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

In Illinois, all students are required to take the ACT. But it just goes to show the vagaries of test scores, and how difficult they are to interpret. So maybe we shouldn't quote Arne Duncan telling us these scores prove Chicago's schools are getting dramatically better, or put a headline like "State ACT Scores On Right Track' on the front page like the Tribune did. At least unless or until we know it's true.

School Wreck
"[Y]ou've got a public school system statewide that tends to give children from the best homes and wealthiest neighborhoods the best schools and the best teachers," writes Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner, in "Bystanders Watch Wreck Of Public School System."

You've Got Gas
Chicago Tonight took up the story of Chicago's gas prices last night, and at least didn't rely on the guy from the Illinois Petroleum Institute as its sole source, as the Sun-Times did yesterday.

The show invited Rebecca Stanfield, director of Environmental Illinois, to join industry representative David Sykuta - who once (and perhaps still) also fronted The Partnership for Environmental Progress. It briefly and roughly went like this -

Elizabeth Brackett: What are the factors that make gas prices 26 cents higher [in Chicago] than the national average?

Sykuta: We're usually in the top three. What has catapulted Chicago to this dubious distinction is a combination of three things. First, sales taxes and local taxes. [The others are mandated clean fuels, and the higher cost of ethanol.]

Stanfield: The reasons consumers are getting squeezed at the gas pump is because the cost of crude oil is going up.

Brackett: But why are Chicago's prices higher?

Stanfield: I actually don't know if it's because of the taxes . . . but I do know that the underlying problem is our addiction to oil.

It would have been nice to have an economist or industry analyst or pricing expert on the panel. And I would have liked to see a comparison of the base price of gas everywhere without taxes, to see if Chicago's taxes indeed make the difference. I'm not saying they don't, and I'm not defending sales taxes on gas, but I suspect there are more complicated factors involved - as Sykuta himself has written.

For example, as Sykuta says, Chicago is always near the top of the chart in gas prices. We're the nation's third largest city, and we're not on a coast, so we have a relatively high cost-of-living and, presumably, transportation costs higher than, say, New York City and Los Angeles. We also have a permissively corrupt culture here that may lend itself to price gouging, though former Tribune editor Jack Fuller doesn't believe any such thing exists. (second article)

And if you just put "why does chicago have the nation's highest gas prices" into Google, you'll get results returned to you in less than half a second that fill out the issue.

For example, in 2001, the Federal Trade Commission investigated Midwest gas prices. I've only skimmed the report, but I didn't see local taxes singled out.

The Illinois Attorney General's Office investigated rising gas prices after Hurricane Katrina, noting Chicago's prices in particular, and found that "[T]here is no single, clear explanation for the current rise in prices. Instead, like most complex topics, gasoline pricing lends itself to a multitude of explanatory theories, some of them complementary, some of them conflicting."

According to a blog comment that shows up in the Google results, the state of Washington has the highest gas taxes but not the highest prices. I can't verify that, but it's worth checking out.

And - get this - adjusted for inflation, gas prices aren't at an all-time high at all.

It gets better.

According to AAA, Chicago has neither the highest gas prices nor the highest gas taxes in the nation. (This report says Hawaii's prices are higher.)

Finally, to Stanfield's point, this AP story in the Sioux City Journal is headlined "Economics 101: Demand Is The Demon Behind High Gas Prices."

We'd all like tax relief, but that discussion is ultimately a diversion.

Oil Safari
Further answers might be found in Paul Salopek's recent special report, which looks terrific from a distance, but I have to admit I have yet to read it, despite my best intentions.

Big Box Burlesque
"Ald. Shirley Coleman (16th), who voted in favor of the ordinance, said Tuesday that she is among those who are considering changing sides. But her switch is contingent on Wal-Mart building a store in her impoverished South Side ward, she said."

And if she can't have a Wal-Mart in her ward, no one can.

The Talk of Chicago
WVON is moving from its familiar 1450 AM frequency to 1690, and will begin broadcasting 24/7.

Digital Bankruptcy
The federal bankrupty court is paperless.

Defender Mender
The Defender turns a corner.

60 Minutes produced two excellent pieces this week and both are available on You Tube. The first is Mike Wallace's interview with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The second is a profile of Stephen Colbert.

The Beachwood Tip Line: All about the wagon wheel.


Posted on August 16, 2006

MUSIC - Spring Awakening Wake-Up Call!
TV - Goodbye, Apu.
POLITICS - The Political Odds.
SPORTS - SportsMonday: Catching Bears Fever.

BOOKS - Gov. Ed Coles.


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