Judging schools’ success: Why do we keep coming back to test scores?

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Any time I write a story about a school, I look for test scores, which are available to the public on the Minnesota Department of Education website. I know that scores can’t give the whole picture, but they can be useful from a reporting perspective. MDE’s site allows you to compare different schools—to see how a particular school compares to others in the same district or the state. The website also allows you to look at how particular groups of students—such as high-poverty students, English learners (EL), or those from a particular race or ethnicity—are faring.

The problem is that standardized test scores don’t tell you everything. They don’t tell you, for example, how well the students are learning history, or the arts, or foreign languages. They don’t tell you if students are learning critical thinking skills, or getting basic life skills like health, civics, or budgeting. They don’t tell you how well students are learning to work with others. They don’t tell you if the students are learning how to listen.

They also tend to be unfair. A school in a rich neighborhood doesn’t have the challenges that face a school that serves 90 percent students on free and reduced-price lunch, or one with high populations of English learners or kids with special education needs. While there are ways to factor out different variables, it seems inherently illogical to rely too much on test scores in judging a school’s success, when there are so many other factors at play.

Even when you do try to control for relevant variables, it sometimes can be even more confusing. Take Green Central Park School, for example. The numbers, generally, are very low, but when I tried to look at just EL students, or just African-American students, the differences seemed arbitrary, with certain groups doing well on math but not reading, and vice versa for another group. I think you need a much higher degree of analysis than I’m able to do as a reporter on one story. This is why academics study these things, after all, but even in that case, I find that conflicting academic studies can make me even more confused.

Test scores are so much a part of the way the world thinks about schools these days. They’re used as a factor to determine funding, and as a sounding board in school reform debates. Even for me, despite my misgivings about what they really say, I feel myself going back to them anyway. Maybe it’s because there is something that seems misleadingly definitive about numbers. They appear scientific, even when they’re meaningless.

Also read Alleen Brown’s series Testing: Who wins, who loses with high-stakes standardized testing in Minnesota schools