I thought I’d tell you about a big project that ran this weekend in the paper where I work, the Victoria Advocate.
The story — expertly reported by Carolina Astrain — addresses the test score achievement gap between white students and black students and between white students and Hispanic students.
Those are the way the scores are measured, but it’s not really a racial issue. Students from economically disadvantaged homes tend to fare much more poorly than students from middle-class or well-off backgrounds. But drawing a direct comparison is difficult because while we can find scores for students who qualify for free meals, schools don’t keep up with scores of everyone but.
So there’s no “gap” to measure between economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged kids. Only between economically disadvantaged and the entire pool of students. Which doesn’t really help tell a story.
Here’s how we started Carolina’s story on page one.
Carolina found faces to put on her story: One youth who’s struggling in school and one who’s been a success story. The portrait up top is by veteran photographer Frank Tilley. The smaller one was shot by our intern from the University of Missouri, Yi-Chin Lee. Another picture of this second student ran one one of the jump pages.
I put together a little graphic — which I intentionally kept as simple as possible — to illustrate “the gap” and what it looks like.
As nice as Carolina’s work was, the real unsung hero on this project was our digital editor, Jordan Rubio. Jordan took the numbers Carolina got from the Victoria School District and crunched them into a database that helped us quantify the problem and identify which of the schools in Victoria have the biggest gaps.
After all the crunching — and believe me, Jordan did a lot of crunching — we then regrouped and decided just what we needed to put into our print report, what we wanted to put online and what we could omit.
The result, for Sunday’s print edition, was this double page spread. Click — if you dare — for a much larger look:
Is that a bit overwhelming, or what? I’d like to think that the actual dead-tree version isn’t quite so dense. I purposely put in as much leading and white space as I could spare, just to keep readers’ eyeballs from spurting blood.
We showed a column of data for all 17 of Victoria’s elementary schools and all four of its middle schools. For a closer look at one of these columns, let’s take it from the top, shall we?
For each school, we listed the percent of economically disadvantaged students — I called them “poor” students, which is politically incorrect but a heck of a lot shorter — as well as the percent of black and Hispanic students at each school.
Some of our local neighborhoods are in flux, so we listed — smaller and greyed back just a bit — the change in percentage points over the four years for which we have data.
All of this I put in front of a grey screen, because we wanted it to recede just a bit on the page, to keep it from competing with the next section: The percentage of students passing.
For each school, we listed a) the overall percent of students passing, b) the percent of white students passing, c) the percent of black students passing, d) the percent of Hispanic students passing and e) the percent of economically disadvantaged students passing.
For the two major fault lines we identified — blacks and Hispanics — we cited “the gap” and how that gap has increased or decreased over the past four years.
This was the most important data on the page, so I made sure it “popped” by reversing it out of a black box.
Finally, at the bottom of each column, Jordan — the guy who crunched all the data — gave his analysis of the data. In case readers had difficulty processing all the data for their kids’ school, this would give them a clue what to look for.
This made the topic about as simple as we could make it. The downside: It took an awful lot of space. I’ve worked with huge agate charts of school data before. But not one that required quite so many numbers and bar charts.
For the record, there were 105 little fever graphs on this two page spread, including 435 data points.
And those are just the graphs. That’s not including all the separate numbers we cited. There were 336 of those.
Don’t feel sorry for me, though. I’m a pretty methodical designer. Once I develop a plan, it’s just a matter of plowing through the data. The guy to feel sorry for is JR Ortega, the Advocate’s copy desk chief who had to go back and proofread all this stuff.
At the bottom of the grid, I did something I rarely do: I wrote a “How to read this chart” breakout that was about six to eight inches long.
I did this to a) explain my use of “poor” instead of “economically disadvantaged” and “black” instead of “African-American,” and b) to make sure readers understood the difference between percents (as in “students passing”) and percent points (in which we measured the gaps and the four-year change in data).
Because we determined that this really was probably more of an economic issue than a racial issue, we added — at the last minute — a little bar chart that shows how the poverty rate here in Victoria is higher than the state and national averages.
That was a little brainstorm by the Advocate‘s editor, Chris Cobler.
Carolina also wrote a breakout explaining why the educational achievement of economically disadvantaged students affects the entire region.
After dealing in the macro, we also brought the story a full circle for readers and listed ways they can get help in bringing up their own kids’ test scores: Online tutorials and practice standardized tests, tutoring hotlines, various resource offices and so on.
In all, it was an exhaustive package. Carolina did a superb job of putting it all together and balancing all the requests from her editors and colleagues.
Again, though, the real superhero for the numbers part of this project was Jordan. He posted a detailed blog piece explaining his methodology. He writes:
The first thing you should know about data reporting is that any set of data will be imperfect; in fact it will be downright messy most of the time. This is because the organization collecting the data will often change its definition or collection methods.
Jordan goes on and on about how he made the choices he made and why. And then he goes on to — and this is the best part! — make the data he collected available to readers. They can download the Google document…
…save it in a format compatible with Excel and then crunch and recrunch, hide and reorder the numbers all they like.
But wait! There’s more!
Jordan, as I mentioned, is our digital editor. You don’t think he’d pass up a chance to do something spectacular for our online presentation, do you?
For each school, Jordan took all of the data I used in print — and a lot more — and presented it graphically, using widgets from infogr.am, a digital “data visualization” application. Unlike the tiny, as-simple-as-possible bar charts I used in print, Jordan put all the data on the same chart.
Individual data points are available via mouseover.
The pie charts transform as readers click on the buttons for each year.
Each chart includes extensive notes, telling readers what to look for and how the numbers have changed over time.
What’s more: The online presentation is designed to have legs: Jordan intends to add more data to it over time. Right now, the presentation focuses on test scores and the achievement gaps. But over time, this data base will include lots of other data as well.
It’s amazing stuff.
Now, let me introduce some of the fine folks upon whom I just bragged: My young colleagues here at the Victoria Advocate.
A 2014 graduate of TCU, Jordan Rubio worked as a reporter, a multimedia reporter and managing editor for the student media there, the Daily Skiff and TCU 360. He served internships at the San Antonio Express-News and a fellowship at News21 before joining the Advocate last August. Find his Twitter feed here.
A 2010 graduate of the University of Missouri, Carolina Astrain served as online editor for the student paper there, the Maneater. She served internships at Houston Community Newspapers, KXAN-TV and KBIA-FM before moving to Minnesota Public Radio in 2011. She joined the Advocate in 2012 and covers the education beat. Find her Twitter feed here.
A 2009 graduate of Texas-Pan American, JR Ortega served as editor-in-chief of the student paper there, the Pan American. He served a Maynard Fellowship and then came to the Advocate as a health and ranging reporter. He left in 2012 to become general manager and editor of a weekly in Matagorda but then returned later that year to work on the features and diversity beats. He moved into his copy desk position last fall. Find his Twitter feed here.
And you know me. I’m just me: The still-awfully-brand-new managing editor for visuals of the Advocate. I moved here in November.
Which brings me to one last quick point: You’ve read this far. You’ve seen the kind of work we aspire to. We want to do stuff this cool, and more often.
But we’re missing a key element from our team: You.
The Advocate is on the hunt for entry-level journalists. Sharp, hungry and eager to set the world on fire. At this very moment, we have need of a copy editor-slash-designer. In fact, unless I’m mistaken, I think we could stand two of them.
Here’s the ad. Interested? Want to know more? You know where to find me.
If you’d like to see more, here are links to this project and all its components..
Average daily circulation for the Victoria Advocate is 26,531.