Test scores don’t mean that much

May 6, 2011 

Another round of standardized test scores have been released and education experts, politicians and parents are assessing the results. Unfortunately, this accountability system doesn’t tell us much beyond what we already knew about our public schools.

The school districts that did well trumpeted their successes and those that did poorly offered their best spin on the disappointing results. But for the most part, schools were in the range predicted for them. Even though the test score system offers little new information, the bureaucrats have made the scoring system extremely difficult for parents to understand. That’s by design. They could have given the schools the same A-to-F letter grades that students get, but then parents would quickly know how their school scored and there would be a backlash when they saw so many schools with D’s and F’s.

So the education establishment and the test publishers have come up with several standardized tests that are more about politics than educating children. If you care about education, don’t buy into the test score mania.

This is what public education has come to in the 21st century — predictable tests that say this is a “good school” and this is a “bad school,” with scant information to put these assessments in context.

But here’s the dirty little secret about public schools: Their test scores have little to do with the quality of the education they are putting out and more to do with the demographics of the children attending schools. That means that children in upscale neighborhoods with economic advantages tend to do substantially better on educational measurements than children coming from poor neighborhoods where it is a challenge for parents to pay the rent, let alone buy an iPad for their kids.

California residents pay the bills in public schools and they deserve a system of accountability. Standardized tests give us one view — a narrow one — and they have some value. The problem is that we now believe that standardized tests are the only measurement that counts.

There are other more important assessments that are disregarded. For example, a teacher in a school in a poor neighborhood may increase her classroom performance by two grade levels in math. But because that class is still below the standards for its grade, many would deem the performance a failure when it was actually a huge success.

I have written about this many times in the past, and decided to raise the subject again after the frenzy over the most recent test scores.

Here’s the problem for the public schools. Most of the students in low-performing schools have challenges that can’t be overcome in the classroom. Many come from broken homes, and don’t have the parental involvement of students from upscale schools. Some grow up in generational poverty, and they have few chances to break the cycle.

This is the reality but it can’t be an excuse. All children deserve an opportunity to learn, and education is their best chance out of poverty.

There are dedicated teachers doing their best with these children and they are having some success. Unfortunately, their work doesn’t get recognized in standardized tests that suggest that every student comes from the same economic background.

Standardized test publishers have created a lucrative industry and they have even put some educators on their payrolls. Textbook publishers have been doing that for years, which is why books cost so much and school districts are so willing to pay outrageous prices for them.

The next time school test scores are released, don’t get too worked up by them. They’re just telling you what you already know.

Jim Boren is The Bee’s editorial page editor. His column appears Sundays. Email him at jboren@fresnobee.com or write him at 1626 E St., Fresno 93786.

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