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VT Digger: William Mathis: Who Likes School Test Scores? Almost No One

The latest release of statewide test results (the Snapshot) generated some twitchy nerves for this recovering assessment director. Other people share this uncomfortable ambiguity but the feelings of people who support and do not support broad-scale testing may be surprising.

Except for a small number, parents are the most uncertain. They fear their child will be “below average” which no parent wants to believe. In fact, parents in states with extensive testing programs have less trust in schools and government. Individual test results look very important but end up filed and forgotten until excavated and culled when the children move out.

Test scores are important but not as important as other things. Parents care about whether their children are happy, well-adjusted, get along with others, are honest in their dealings and whether they grow up to be healthy, caring adults. They want their children to make sound life decisions and be contributors to society.

Another group of people that do not care much about test scores is educators. The reason is simple. Standardized tests do not give timely, useful information. They do not address effort, hard work, or personal attributes. Teachers will have learned the important things about their students long before last year’s outdated test results get to them.

A third group that does not care about testing is students. Tested repeatedly and despite pep talks by teachers, students are weary of irrelevant tests that do not appear to have any connection with their life or school.

The fourth group is higher education. More than 1,000 colleges and universities have dropped admissions tests. Student essays, teacher recommendations, grade point average and student performance are far more important. Tests of “college and career readiness” just do not measure college readiness.

In the media, officials say things like “the test scores show school performance data for every school in the state.” That’s partially true. If the report had actually addressed the other parts of the state’s Education Quality Standards (things like individual attention, health and safety, quality staffing, and transferable skills), then a better claim could be made for saying we are evaluating a school’s performance. School performance is more complex than a test score.

Looking at who does care about standardized test scores, there are a number of Washington think tanks that promote test-based school reform even though it hasn’t worked too well. School scores have steadily increased since 1971 but they have barely moved the needle on closing the achievement gap. Others want to privatize public schools and they use test scores to claim public schools are “failing.” Business groups are among the most consistent public school critics as they want their workforce prepared by the schools even though there is no overall shortage of STEM workers. Regarding the media, negative news sells.

A school failure or a social failure?

Finally, and the most dangerous for society, are the pundits and politicians who find it far easier to blame the schools than to confront our real problem. SchoolDigger, following the lead of U.S. News and World Report, ranks Vermont schools based on test scores. Vermont’s top 10 scoring high schools have only 24.3% poverty. Vermont’s 10 lowest scoring schools have a 50.8% poverty rate – more than twice as high.

Poverty has a far greater influence on test scores than any other factor, including the schools. Poverty causes absenteeism, impaired attention, diminished social skills, lowered motivation and ambition, and increased depression. It takes little insight to understand that a child from a drug-influenced and unstable home will be little served by writing essays and doing math problems.

The state tests will not cure poverty but curing poverty will improve test scores.

Despite the limitations of testing, we should retain standardized tests in three grade levels to provide the outside check and balance that any enterprise needs. This means negotiating with the federal government about their ineffective and bureaucratic school reform models. We must also embrace the other purposes and outcomes of schooling. We must deliver on the central element of our Education Quality System, our school visitation teams. A society depends upon and draws its strength from equality and real opportunities for all to succeed. This requires public schools and a social network designed to serve all students.

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is the managing director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of schools for the Rutland Northeast Supervisory Union in Brandon, Vermont. He is a co-recipient of the Horace Mann League’s national Outstanding Public Educator award, was a...