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May 2003Vol. 4, No. 4Brief Outlines Proper Uses (and Misuses) of Social Indicators

When used properly, statistical data can be a powerful tool. However, a new research brief issued by Child Trends warns that one form of data, social indicators, should be used cautiously to avoid false claims.

Social indicators are statistics that track patterns and trends over time (e.g., the percentage of adults with HIV/AIDS, or changes in standardized test scores in a school district from year to year). Social indicators help policy makers and practitioners:

  • Describe trends and patterns in society.
  • Monitor outcomes.
  • Set goals (such as those put forth in Healthy People 2010).
  • Increase accountability (by making States, localities, or agencies responsible for achieving certain outcomes).
  • Monitor a program's progress over time.

Proper use of indicators requires the use of an appropriate population (e.g., if studying low income children, make sure that all the data used are on children that meet the definition of "low income"); appropriate geographic level (e.g., county, State); and indicators that accurately reflect the concepts they are trying to measure.

However, social indicators cannot point to specific causes of social change. For example, data may indicate that binge drinking among college students has declined, but these data give no clues as to why this occurred. Based on this data alone, a program addressing binge drinking could not claim credit for the decline, nor could it be said (using indicator data alone) that a program is ineffective. Only experimental research can determine a program's effectiveness.

The full brief is available on the Child Trends website at Child Trends is a research organization focused on children's issues.

Related Items

Read more about indicators of child well-being in previous issues of Children's Bureau Express:

  • "Trends in the Well-Being of America's Children & Youth 2001" (July 2002)
  • "Casey Foundation Tracks Trends in Child Well-Being" (July/August 2001)
  • "Seeking Better Ways to Measure Child Well-Being" (May 2000)