Lead Did Not Turn Flint Children Into Idiots. Stop Saying So.

Here’s a headline at The 74:

Another Outrage in Flint: Third-Grade Reading Levels Plummet by 75% After City’s Water Poisoned by Lead

The article goes on to say that grade-level reading proficiency dropped from 41.8 percent in 2014 to 10.7 percent in 2017. Sure enough, that’s a 75 percent drop. Case closed?

Nope. All by itself that figure should make you suspicious: a modest increase in lead ingestion simply shouldn’t have that big an effect. And sure enough, it turns out that proficiency for the entire state of Michigan dropped from 70 percent to 50 percent in the single year between 2014 and 2015. Why? Because Michigan put in place a new, more difficult test in 2015. Test scores dropped all over the state after the new test was introduced.

But scores dropped even more in Flint. Is that because of lead? Probably not. Reading proficiency in Flint dropped from 41.8 percent to 18.7 percent between 2014 and 2015, but it makes no sense to blame lead for this. Lead primarily affects 1-5 year-olds. These are 8-year-olds. A smallish increase in lead levels simply wouldn’t have that big or that immediate an effect on 8-year-olds. It would be more informative to track, say, children who were three years old in 2015 to find out how they did five years later. But we can’t do that yet because those kids are barely out of kindergarten. We’ll have to wait.

There’s also this: if lead was the cause of the decline, then reading proficiency should have increased after 2016, when the lead was removed. It didn’t. It kept dropping, and so did scores throughout Michigan. Lead just doesn’t fit except as possibly a very small contributor to this decline.

Why do I care about this? For the same reason as always: warning people about the dangers of lead is great, but producing panic isn’t. Children know what’s going on around them. If they hear that kids are being made stupider by the water in Flint, they’ll do worse on tests. This is common knowledge: expectations of success affect test scores in both directions.

I understand that it takes yelling and screaming to get anything done. But it has other consequences too, and one of them is panicking children into thinking they’ve been turned into idiots. Stop it.


Headshot of Editor in Chief of Mother Jones, Clara Jeffery

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Signed by Clara Jeffery

Clara Jeffery, Editor-in-Chief

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