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One of the conceits embraced by education traditionalists is the idea that standardized testing is debasing to their vision of education. From arguing that testing doesn’t fully offer information on learning, to deflaring that it is ‘inappropriate’ to use of student test score growth data in evaluating teachers, traditionalists oppose testing vigorously and often, thoughtlessly. This in spite of growing evidence that testing is ceitical to measuring what happens to kids in school, and in overhauling schools.

In this Voices of the Dropout Nation, Matt Barnum takes on these assertions and notes the growing evidence that shows the value and importance of testing in advancing the reforms needed to help all children succeed. Read, consider, and offer your own thoughts.

Can a good school have low test scores? It’s a question that Mother Jones reporter Kristina Rizga attempts to answer in telling the story of Mission High School in San Francisco. Its affecting journalism, well told. Rizga, who spent a year and a half at the school, reports that Mission has seen strong college acceptance and attendance rates, coupled with decreases in dropouts and suspensions – and yet the school’s test scores have stubbornly remained among the lowest in California. Students, parents, and teachers are all happy with the school, but high-stakes tests tell a different story. Rizga sees all this as strong evidence that the tests aren’t really measuring anything meaningful. I see it as evidence of how important it is that schools use objective measures of student achievement – yes, tests – to demonstrate success.

Rizga claims that there is “a mountain of evidence that standardized tests reveal a very narrow slice of information,” but the evidence she cites provides more of a molehill. Check it out. It’s a Dissent article that raises genuine issues with high-stakes testing accountability – like cheating, arbitrary proficiency bars, and previous knowledge of tested items – but says very little about whether well-constructed tests measure important information.

So let’s look at some other evidence. There’s the study from Raj Chetty and John Friedman of Harvard and Jonah Rockoff of Columbia University, which shows that teachers who effect student test gains also produce real-life gains for students, such as higher rates of college attendance, better salaries as adults, and fewer teen pregnancies. [Also, listen to the Dropout Nation Podcast discussing the data.] There is also the Measures of Effective Teaching study released earlier this year, which finds that teachers whose students give them high ratings are most likely to produce strong value-added test scores; perhaps even more important, the study indicates that teachers who focus too much on practicing for standardized tests actually yield worse results than teachers who spend less time focused on those high-stakes tests. There is research from professors at Purdue University that suggests that testing can actually lead to learning by helping students internalize what they’re being tested on. There is the evidence from the College Board (which, along with Educational Testing Services, administers the Scholastic Aptitude Test) that students who do well on the SAT are also more likely to do well in their first year of college. And as Peter Salins of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has shown, there is support for the notion that students who do well on tests are significantly more likely to graduate college.

This paints a completely different picture of standardized testing. Tests help students remember material and predict which students will succeed beyond high school. The teachers who produce the best test results are also the ones who are inspiring their students, who students give high ratings to, and who are not narrowly teaching to the test.

Let me back up for a second. Mission High School seems to be making impressive strides in several key metrics. In particular, the college-acceptance rate of the school’s student body is quite impressive. No doubt, their staff is composed of hard-working individuals committed to their students. Nothing I’m writing is intended to detract from or denigrate the school.

Rizga writes movingly about Maria, an immigrant who showed remarkable personal growth at Mission, but whose test scores were poor. In essence, her story mirrors Mission’s. Maria received several college acceptance letters and scholarships, but despite Maria’s remarkable trajectory, her chances of graduating college are statistically lower than a student with higher test scores. And if she does graduate, her days of high-stakes testing may have just begun. Let’s say she wants to be a doctor – she has to take the MCAT. If she wants to be a teacher, in many states she must pass a test. If she wants to be an engineer, she must pass a test. If she wants to be a lawyer, she must first take the LSAT, and then pass the bar. Are we doing Maria any favors if she’s not prepared to take standardized tests?

At the end of the piece, Rizga quotes a student who raises a dangerous notion, “California test scores are low, but [Waiting for Superman] didn’t mention we have the most immigrants here. Our English scores are bad, but that doesn’t mean our school is bad.” Should we lower expectations for immigrant students? Most everyone agrees that we should look at student growth, along with actual achievement, but it’s problematic to suggest that schools with immigrants and other minority populations should be held to lower standards.

The research suggests that test scores are measuring something meaningful. A school that isn’t showing growth on state tests is failing its students on at least one crucial dimension. Mission appears to be building the foundation for success. But it’s not successful – not yet.

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