Do state test results reveal the quality of a school?

Are state tests, such as the Smarter Balance Assessment an appropriate way to hold schools accountable for quality?  Do these tests truly reveal the quality or effectiveness of a school?  I say, “No,” emphatically, but not for the reasons you might expect.

I agree that the purpose of education is to increase academic skills, even though many in education disagree.  I agree that tests ought to be used to determine what students have learned.  I agree that more learning is better.  I do not agree with folks who say that testing is bad and that schools should not give tests because that stifles teacher creativity.  I do not agree with the proposition that tests can’t measure what is important in education.

Neither do I agree, however, with the use of state-constructed one-size-fits-all tests to attempt to hold schools accountable for quality.  It has taken me several years to come to this position.  I have three main reasons.

First there is the issue of alignment. Let me explain what that means. Imagine you want to buy a sports car.  You look up your favorite sports car to see its rating.  You are shocked find low scores and an “F” grade on the rating system compared to other cars.  Unbeknownst to you the ratings are based largely on the size of the payload the vehicle can carry and the number of passengers that can fit in it.  Your dream two-seater is rated low on that account and there is nothing in there about how fun the car is to drive.  That’s an example of misalignment.

Whatever the state chooses to put on the test becomes, in essence, the required curriculum of all the schools in the state, even if it is irrelevant or actually wrong.  The state tests are wrong both for what they leave out and for what they include.  For example, state tests for elementary age students in reading and math ignore fundamental areas of the curriculum.  I refer to accuracy and fluency in decoding the meanings of words, in the statement (memorization) of mathematical facts, in mathematical calculations, and in spelling.  State tests simply don’t bother to measure these pillars of an elementary education, even though they are critical to future educational success.

An example of schools that do well on these basic academic pillars are the Arthur Academy charter schools.  Due to the use of a trend-bucking curriculum called Direct Instruction (DI), they mostly achieve better test scores than the school districts in which they reside. More importantly, they prepare their students for later success in schooling.  DI is a specific, scripted, sequential elementary curriculum (grades K through 5) that takes much of the guesswork out of teaching.  The lessons are carefully crafted to be easily understood, build only on what has been taught in earlier lessons, and prepare students precisely for what is to come. There are programs for reading, math, spelling, and writing.  All but the very lowest special education students can learn from these programs and emerge from elementary school with average or above average skills.  DI is hated by the progressive educators at universities, but these charters love it, and so do their students and parents.

Curricula, such as DI, that focus on bringing all the fundamental student skills to mastery (including the ones not tested) must do so on top of teaching the things that are measured on the test—while other schools focus all their efforts on the test material.  A majority of American elementary schools no longer teach spelling, for example, simply because it is not measured on the state tests.  While learning how to spell is an essential skill, the state tests have pushed it out of the curriculum.  Not to mention all the other critical content not tested and no longer taught.

Conversely, state tests focus strongly on a number of things that, although they sound good, are not skills to be taught but attributes of intelligence that we desire.  These attributes are such things as the ability of bright elementary students to make inferences from unfamiliar texts, to write interesting imaginative stories, and to find creative solutions to unique word problems in mathematics.

These attributes, and their application, are not an emphasis of the very strong DI elementary curriculum.  But if schools that use DI taught what is in their curriculum (what kids need) and ignored the less relevant, they would get lower state test scores and be branded as poor schools.  Schools ought to be able to use their own tests to measure what their own curriculum plans to teach, and be evaluated on how well the school does what it claims it will do.  Parents, of course, could select schools according to the nature of their claims as well as their performance.

Second, people forget important facts about state tests.  One is that the results have no consequences for the children.  Another is that these are children taking these tests.  Children are subject to wide swings in their performance, often depending on testing circumstances.  Schools routinely find children who have been well taught but who for years have failed the test.  Yet they can reach not only “proficient” but “exceeds proficient” if their teacher sits next to them and makes them read the test aloud and gives them breaks when they get tired.  Essentially we are making certain that they actually do their best on what to them is a very long test.  This is not cheating.  These practices are specifically allowed by the state rules for students who need them; they are called an “accommodation.”  And it is an appropriate accommodation.  It just shows the best that the student can do.  Guess what?  Children don’t always do their best.  Sometimes they just guess their way through the test to get it over with.  If those children go to another school, where no one they know or care about is monitoring their test performance or where they are allowed to do fun stuff when they are “done,” they will probably turn in a failing score the next year. Does that mean the school is bad?  Not at all.  Does it mean the school is good if they carefully accommodate all the children so they get their best scores?  Not at all.

Third is the issue of students’ ability.   This may not be obvious to everyone, but the more able students are, the easier it is for them to learn.  The less able they are, the harder the teacher and the school must work to teach them.   Scores on state tests are as much a measure of how smart the student body is, as they are a measure of how well the teachers teach.  It is ridiculously unfair to ignore this fact and proclaim that high test scores mean a school is good and low test scores mean it is bad.  That would be true only if the student bodies of the schools were evenly matched in IQ—which is never the case.  It is a heavier lift to raise test scores in a school that enrolls many students with low ability, or learning difficulties; and until we begin to measure the weight of the load, we cannot claim to know which school is stronger or more effective.  If we expect teachers and administrators to want to work with populations that are below average in some way, we have to stop proclaiming that those who teach the smarter students are better teachers, just because their students get higher test scores.

We would be far better off if the states stopped giving their tests, instituted more school choice, and left it up to schools to find a way to prove they were doing a good job for the consumers—just as it happens in every other service industry.  Arthur Academy could do it easily in their schools, without a state test. If they gave aligned end-of-year final exams for each of their DI programs and shared the results with parents, they would be blown away by what the children have learned.   Few students outside of their schools could match that performance.  That’s how you prove quality, not with bogus, we’ll-tell-you-what’s-important-to-learn, state tests.


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Researching the answers to today's problems I found the best answers among writers who identify as libertarian. Maximize freedom, rely on the free market to solve most of our issues, rely on personal responsibility, promote more voluntary charity.