It’s hard to escape the emphasis on test scores in today’s schools. Parents search for homes in school districts with the highest scores. Teachers are being evaluated – and even fired – based in part on whether their students’ scores increase. Schools are being labeled as needing improvement under No Child Left Behind (NCLB) because of test scores. And, according to a recent analysis by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, tampering with the testing process in order to raise scores is suspected in close to 200 school districts across the country.
At the high school level, there are so many more test scores to keep track of – state tests, the SAT, the ACT, exit exams, Advanced Placement – making the temptation to judge schools based on these measures even stronger.
But just as test scores are merely one measure of a student’s abilities and potential, so too should these assessments be considered as separate, single indicators of a school’s quality.
“There is no single number that anyone can look at and say this is a good school or this is a bad school,” says Joan Herman, director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing at the University of California, Los Angeles.
Because the kinds of consequences described above exist, however, there are plenty of schools that provide a “curriculum of test preparation,” Herman says.
Researchers, however, note that the more schools focus on making sure students’ scores increase, the less those students are really learning.
“Test results may become increasingly misleading as measures of achievement in a domain when instruction is focused too narrowly on the specific knowledge, skills, and test question formats that are likely to appear on the test,” the authors of a National Research Council report wrote last year. “When scores increase on a test for which students have been ‘prepared’ in these ways, it indicates only that students have learned to correctly answer the specific kinds of questions that are included on that particular test. It does not indicate that that students have also attained greater mastery of the broader domain that the test is intended to represent.”
One benefit of the assessment picture at the high school level is that students are being evaluated through multiple measures. Still, all test scores have limitations, Herman says, adding that each score needs to be looked at in a broader context of what is happening in the school.
For example, maybe the school’s average SAT score is an amazing 1750 out of a possible 2400, but only a small fraction of the school’s seniors is even taking the test. That sends a pretty strong message that the school is not expecting or encouraging most students to take the college entrance exam.
As more students take the test, scores are likely to drop, but it’s a good indication, Herman says, that the school is working to make sure students are “oriented toward college.”
The same goes with Advanced Placement courses. Looking at how many AP courses are available at the school and whether students are encouraged to take on the challenge of an AP course – instead of those classes being reserved for the highest performing students – says more about the environment of the school that how many students earned a 3 or higher on the exams.
In addition to offering AP courses, experts say high schools should be giving students multiple opportunities to take rigorous courses – beyond minimum requirements for graduation – apply what they are learning in the classroom to extended, integrated projects, and receive ongoing feedback about their progress.
It’s not enough to provide higher-level courses. Many students will also need additional support in math or in writing to do well in those courses.
If the scores on tests given to all students at a school – such as state tests or exit exams – are increasing, it’s important to ask what the school has done to help students be more successful, suggests Jeff Gagne, the director of education policies at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.
“Our notion is that tests can lead you to ask other questions, “ Gagne says.
For example: Did the school offer additional review sessions or tutoring? Or is it perhaps that the demographics of that school is shifting toward a higher-income population?
After all, one sure thing that test scores tend to communicate is that schools with high scores tend to serve more affluent, well-educated families who expect their children to succeed in school and will seek out additional help for their children if needed.
If scores on a certain assessment are dropping, it could be that class sizes have increased due to budget cuts and teachers can’t possibly provide all of their students with individual help. What about the neighborhood in which the school is located? Is it a transient area with a lot of students moving in and out of the school during the year?
Vertical planning – in which teachers meet with colleagues from the grades below and above the one they teach – is now viewed as essential for examining assessment data, determining where students are and deciding what needs to be done to get them where they need to go. This concept is likely still foreign for many high school teachers, who traditionally have operated in their own world of the classroom. But it’s a practice that experts say is critical for ensuring that students are continuing to make progress.
With the Elementary and Secondary Education Act – or NCLB – due for reauthorization by Congress, discussions over the role of test data in determining whether a school is or is not improving have been intense and will surely continue even after the law is changed.
“We label schools failures on test scores,” Gagne says. “But we know that just because a school didn’t make adequate yearly progress doesn’t make that school a failure.”
What do you think? Are test scores appropriate indicators of a school’s success? Should they be?
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Linda Jacobson is a freelance education writer, covering a wide range of topics from early-childhood education to college transition. Jacobson has a bachelors degree from Georgia State University, and has written for publications, including the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Education Week.