TARADALE HIGH SCHOOL AGAINST THE DOMINION POSTThe Press Council has upheld a complaint from Taradale High School about the reporting of its NCEA results for year 13 level 3 students.
Under the headline Boys slip further in school’s co-ed class, on August 12 The Dominion Post published a story and table about achievement rates in 2012 for NCEA level 3 students in its circulation area, with the table reporting on highest and lowest achieving schools. The table gave pass rates for the highest achieving schools, but failure rates for the lowest achieving schools.
Under the heading "Lowest Achieving Hawke's Bay Schools" the table listed Wairoa High School 43.8per cent not achieved; Dannevirke High School: 40 per cent; Taradale High School: 36.2 percent. The school complained that this conveyed a misleading impression that only 36.2 percent of its students had passed. In fact, 63.8 percent had.
School principal Stephen Hensman said the newspaper had misleadingly used two different measures in the same table. It had assigned pass rates to the schools labelled as "highest achieving", yet assigned rates of failure for those it labelled "lowest achieving".
"It is unfathomable that the Dominion Post chose to use the 'failure rate' and represent it as our 'pass rate', thereby indicating that little more than a third of our students had passed, when close to two thirds actually had."
Most readers he knew about had misinterpreted the statistics. The school, students and staff had been brought into disrepute. He asked for a published apology in the newspaper, and said it had failed to observe the Press Council's principle of fairness, accuracy and balance.
He also sent a letter to the newspaper, for publication, in a bid to correct the impression conveyed. This was published a week later, on August 19.
However, after correspondence with editor, Bernadette Courtney - in which he also said the first report disregarded "context" between one school year's results and another – he complained to the Press Council.
Ms Courtney noted that the complaint said the Dominion Post had reported the school's results as 36.2 percent. "This is quite clearly not the case. As Mr Hensman's attached article shows, the 36.2 percent figure refers to those who did NOT achieve, not to the number who did."
The accuracy of the figures, which came from the NZQA, was not disputed by Mr Hensman or anyone else. The objection was purely in the presentation.
The NZQA figures originally showed the number of year 13 students who had NOT passed NCEA level 3. The newspaper decided to turn the figures around, to assist readers and also show how well most schools and students had performed. It aimed to show the rates of those who had successfully passed level 3, rather than those who had not.
The figures were also broken down into regions within the newspaper's circulation area, highlighting each region's top three and bottom three schools.
"However, when it came to the bottom three in each region, we stuck with the 'not passing' figures provided to us." Mr Hensman's complaint stemmed from his school being among the bottom performers in Hawke's Bay.
In correspondence with the school, she said the figures did not misrepresent student achievements "although I do accept that we would have been better advised to have used only one measure throughout."
"I am happy to give an undertaking that we will not be using that format again."
Commenting on the complainant's assertion that the figures had not been put into year-on-year context, Ms Courtney said it was unrealistic to expect a newspaper to detail why schools' figures differed year-to-year. People interested in the education sector would be familiar with the long running arguments about the data's value. Readers could make their own informed interpretations.
The newspaper was constantly looking at refining how it provided the annual data to readers, and the concerns of principals such as Mr Hensman would be taken into account next year.
"But providing the essential figures are correct - as they were in this case - we will not resile from publishing them, and we have seen no need to apologise for doing so."
She disputed the complainant's assertion that the figures published were inaccurate, unfair and unbalanced.
Press Council Decision
Readers were confused by the way in which the figures were presented.
The editor defends the newspaper's position, but acknowledges "we would have been better advised to have used only one measure throughout". The newspaper would not use that format again.
She defends the newspaper's report with the comment that anyone interested in the sector would be familiar with the long running arguments about the value of the data and make their own interpretations.
However, the school is aggrieved at the way it has been treated, and says most readers that it is aware of got the wrong impression.
While the Dominion Post did publish a letter to the editor from Mr Hensman a week after the initial report, this would have done little to mitigate the immediate effect.
A table provides readers with a quick and ready means of assessing data. But when a comparison is being made it is important that the data is presented in such a way as to make the comparison valid. The use of two differing measures of data in the same table was therefore confusing and misleading.
The editor contended the newspaper had aimed to show that most students had successfully achieved. However, Mr Hensman says most of his students did pass "yet the table and the story lead readers to believe the opposite."
The Press Council supports that view. The complaint is upheld.
Press Council members considering this complaint were Sir John Hansen, Tim Beaglehole, Liz Brown, Pip Bruce Ferguson, Kate Coughlan, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, John Roughan and Stephen Stewart.
Clive Lind took no part in the consideration of this complaint.
NOTE: Subsequent to the publication of this decision NZQA advised that NCEA results are published as rates of success not rates of failure. The newspaper accepted that the statement in their response was incorrect and apologised to the Press Council.