“I Cannot Tell a Lie”

November 9, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

The father of our country may have been scrupulously truthful, but at least one of his namesakes has been fudging the data.

From Inside Higher Ed
George Washington University on Thursday became the third private university this year to admit that it has been reporting incorrect information about its new students -- both on the university's website and in information provided to U.S. News & World Report for rankings.

In the case of GW, the university -- for at least a decade -- has been submitting incorrect data on the class rank of new students. For the most recent class of new students, George Washington reported that 78 percent of new students were in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. The actual proportion of such students is 58 percent.
The irony goes beyond the name.  Universities all have rules about plagiarism and cheating on exams, and in the Student Handbook, accompanying the penalties and procedures section, schools sometimes add a righteous explanation: going out in the world disguised with a phony GPA is not only morally wrong, it is ultimately self-defeating. 

As if.

Cheating is rational, and the conditions that make it rational are the same ones that make it rational for George Washington to tell a lie. To judge the quality of a student or school in some meaningful way would be just too cumbersome.  You would have to get to know the person or school in some deeper way.  But when you have many students to grade and many schools to rate, it’s just so much more convenient to reduce all that information to a couple of numbers.  And it’s much easier to manipulate the numbers than it is to change what those numbers supposedly represent.

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