Flaws force U.S. News to recall compilation rating grad schools UM's law school falls from top 50 ranking after data are corrected

March 06, 1997|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,SUN STAFF

Editors at U.S. News & World Report scrambled yesterday to recall hundreds of thousands of copies of the magazine's annual booklet ranking the nation's graduate and professional schools, after realizing that they had used incorrect figures to assess American law schools.

"Nobody here can feel good about it," said Alvin P. Sanoff, the newsweekly's managing editor for its America's Best Colleges issues. "We're doing everything possible to remedy it."

The University of Maryland School of Law in Baltimore was one of two schools thrown from the top 50 in the corrected rankings.

"It should come as a surprise to no one that this week, U.S. News & World Report is not in my rankings of top 50 American news magazines," said Donald Gifford, dean of the Maryland law school.

While Yale Law School remained at first, Maryland had been rated 46th in ratings that blended reputation-based and quantifiable data; with the revisions, it fell into the "second tier" of law schools, those 51st to 75th in the country.

The flawed ratings appear in the editions of U.S. News currently on sale at newsstands; a corrected version will appear in next week's issue. Editor James Fallows said the magazine also had arranged to replace hundreds of thousands of copies of its book-length compilation that rates 33 different graduate and professional programs. He said the cost would be approximately $500,000.

'Specific clerical error'

"We didn't want to be in the position of knowingly selling erroneous data," Fallows said. "This is a specific clerical error which we take so seriously that we are correcting it at great expense."

In speaking with a law dean Monday evening, the magazine's data chief, Robert Morse, noticed that the numbers the dean cited for his school's unemployed graduates seeking jobs at law firms matched the figures in a column intended to represent unemployed graduates not seeking jobs. He found that a computer program had errantly switched the two figures. The rate of employment a year after graduation is used as one measure of a strength of a school's program for prospective students.

Morse, Sanoff, Fallows, and Mel Elfin, the executive editor of the best colleges issues, spent Tuesday checking and correcting the mistaken statistics and coordinating the recall of the booklets.

The recall comes at a time when Fallows, a media critic who took over as editor six months ago, is reviewing almost every aspect of the magazine's operations. The twin rankings editions -- undergraduate programs each September and graduate and professional programs each March -- provide the magazine with its biggest-selling issues every year. And the booklets, costing $5.95, are also highly popular.

The rankings are controversial because they rely heavily on subjective assessments of campuses -- and educated guesses on what data to include -- to derive a statistical ranking of a college.

In an interview yesterday, Fallows declined to say whether the magazine would continue with the rankings during his tenure.

"I'm not answering that question," he said. "We're still thinking seriously about the right way to do this."

But he said the mistakes made in assessing law schools represented a separate issue.

'Same quality programs'

But for Maryland's Gifford, the disappointment remains.

"We have the same quality programs, the same quality students, and the same quality faculty we did two days ago," he said.

"Each year literally thousands of prospective law students rush to the newsstand to purchase these issues," Gifford said. "Despite their disclaimers, a very modest difference in the ranking seems to suggest to the prospective students something about the quality of the education or the likelihood of their employment prospects."

Pub Date: 3/06/97

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