Monday, September 03, 2007

How Much Do You Value Test Scores?

In one of our faculty meetings at the beginning of the school year one of our Assistant Principals was tasked with talking about testing. While not an enviable job, he did it well. But he made one comment that I wanted to explore a little bit. Paraphrasing, he said something along the lines of, "While many of us have issues with how important the tests are, or what they consist of, or how valid the are, all of us with young children have looked up the test scores of the schools they might go to." His point being, among other things, that even teachers who perhaps don’t agree with the emphasis on testing still check out the scores when it comes to their own kids.

So, while I don’t disagree that this is probably accurate, it made me wonder about how "true" it really is. I imagine most teachers do look at the test scores for their kid’s school (or possible schools), but then I wonder how much of an effect that has on their decision. I’ll be interested to see the responses to this post, both from the edublogosphere as a whole and hopefully from some of the folks in my building, but let me share my story in an effort to be transparent here.

I happen to live in the school district that has the highest overall scores on the CSAP, the state test for Colorado. My neighborhood school consistently scores either first or second in various categories among elementary schools in our district. Yet after a year in Kindergarten, and despite really wanting her to go to a neighborhood school, we chose to open enroll our daughter in a magnet school in the district. This is despite the fact that the magnet school is about a 25 minute drive, and the fact that this school consistently scores second from the bottom in the district on the CSAP. In other words, we chose to move our daughter from a school that’s less than 5 minutes away with some of the highest test scores in the state, to a school that’s 25 minutes away (in good weather) and has mediocre test scores (very low for the district, but middle of the road for the state).

Other than being insane (which is always a possibility), why would we do this? Well, it’s pretty simple. We think this school has the best chance of helping her become the adult human being we hope she becomes, as opposed to maximizing her chances to get a high test score. That doesn’t mean our neighborhood school is horrible, or that we don’t value readin', ritin' and 'rithmetic. It simply means that, philosophically and hopefully in practice, this school has a better chance to create a well-rounded, intellectually curious, happy, lifelong and continual learner who will live a life where she contributes to the greater good of the entire world. And, for us, that’s more important than her CSAP scores.

So, as my high school works on defining our mission and vision, values and goals, I’m curious – what do you look for in a school?


  1. I live and teach in Loudoun County, VA. Always among the top 3 in the U. S. in pace of growth and in family income.

    My son was lucky enough to attend the "most diverse" elementary school in our county. It served an area which included low-moderate income housing, subsidized housing, and upscale housing. This local school's scores often ranked near the bottom of the county.

    As am employee I probably would have been able to have him moved to another school, but I didn't. Some of my friends wondered why and it was difficult to explain.

    I wanted him to learn that it takes all kinds of people working together to make things work. I wanted him to learn that people are people regardless of their race, religion, language or income.

    Now a college senior, an incredible human being, a volunteer firefighter, a symphony musician and an all around good kid, I know I made the right decision.

    His "diverse" elementary school served him well and helped him form a value system of which I am very proud. Test scores are not the true measure of a school.

  2. I'm with both of you.

    I think that we are in the business of fostering the growth of human beings, and that our best work is accomplished, not with high literacy and numeracy scores, but by ensuring students are actively involved in programs that emphasize social justice, personal engagement and environmental and political awareness.

    I am fortunate that my 16 year-old is becoming a sound citizen of the planet, and that, in my job in a downtown Toronto school, I and my colleagues get lots of parental and community support in our efforts to encourage meaningful progress in our students.

  3. This is an interesting question, Karl, especially in light of Scott's post on Leadertalk about analyzing test scores. We all want some way to measure our effectiveness at the task at hand. I work in the private sector we do not publish test scores precisely because we believe they only measure one small part of the education we offer. Our scores are competitive with those in our community but our mission is much broader than the test categories. As a parent I looked for much the same things your did- will my children receive a well rounded education in a multicultural environment that will prepare them to be responsible adults.
    Also on another note, since you are working on your schools vision and mission I would love to get your input on our recently revised mission. It is posted on my blog in the entry entitle "Perspectives". The faculty is looking forward to hearing some feed back from the blogosphere.
    I hope the start of school is going well for you!

  4. I would hope that teachers look beyond test scores when considering schools for their own children. I understand looking at test scores, they are one piece of information about a school. But only one piece.

    We will be sending our oldest child to kindergarten next year. Our neighborhood school is fine, but I don't believe that the level of instruction is as high as at the school in which I teach. My school is much more diverse; racially and socioeconomically. The test scores are not as high as our neighborhood school's however the teaching is phenomenal.

    My daughter will go to school with me because I value the diversity she will experience and because I believe she will actually receive stronger instruction there.

    I do have to admit that this is all in Fairfax County, Virginia which means that even the worst schools in the district are very good by any measure.

  5. We are currently going through a transition with our 7-year-old. He starts home schooling tomorrow, by his own choosing (granted, we initiated the process by giving him the option). This is a step that runs counter to my opinion of local public school, and it feels very much like a divorce is taking place. While there are certainly some fundamental differences in teaching philosophy, the biggest factor in the change is the stress my son is under—a result of class size, homework and a lack of in-school socialization opportunities.

    It is interesting timing for me as I try to wend my way through a doctoral program. This semester, I have a formal pedagogy course in which we are discussing these same issues at the university level. The metrics we use to validate teaching have become almost blind to the concept of learning. I would much prefer to see schools adopt options for peer teaching, portfolios and multi-age classrooms to accommodate the range of learning styles. Unfortunately in our local school, conveniently viewable from our living room window, is so focused on test taking they have sacrificed most of the opportunities for kids to learn.

  6. Well, I don't have children, so I can't answer that part of your question. However, I must admit that while driving past the elementary school two blocks from my house, I was happy to see a banner advertising the school's "excellent" rating from the state. Why? Because there are lots of houses for sale in my neighborhood and I hope that having an "excellent" school will 1) attract young famililes and 2) keep property values up. So, as much as I hate to admit it, I like having a school that is rated "excellent" nearby. Now, if I had children would I look deeper into the school's philosophy? Of course!!!!!!!! But I can also see that the larger society of which we are a part "values" the testing that we as educators often question.

  7. Thanks Amanda, but you pretty much avoided the question. I wasn't asking about what the "larger" society values, I was asking about what you value. After all, the larger society also values news about Paris Hilton and watches Professional Wrestling - I assume we shouldn't include those in our curriculum?

    So, other then your selfish economic self-interest views :-), what really matters to you? What do you (or would you) look for in a school?

  8. Our family moved from Nebraska to Iowa a few years back. when we were looking at school districts in which to locate, we looked at how the district focused on the whole child - not just test scores. We looked at fine arts and opportunities for participation in sports, clubs, or other groups.

    We also looked at how inviting a school district was in making us feel welcome and in answering our questions.

    Community orientation was another thing we looked at. The district we finally chose had partnered with the community to build a media center/library which is staffed and also funded by both the school and the community. In addition to the library, a recreation center which is shared by the school and the community was also part of the structure. We also asked community members about their perceptions of the school district.

    Finally, we looked at classroom size as well as overall size of the school district.

    So, did we look at test scores? Yes. But we also based our decision on several other factors. Many things could be inferred from test scores - perhaps teacher competency, perhaps parental support. But then, it is just an inference and not really an accurate measure. They are only a snapshot of one time. The same district with wonderful test scores one year could have scores that are much lower a year or two down the road.

  9. I don't have children myself, but here's what I value in a school. One, the teachers. Do the students learn from their teachers and enjoy being with them? Are they (the students) respected, challenged and feel valued? Do their teachers care? Everyone does various things in the classroom, but if a kid knows you care and you are human and make mistakes just as much as they do, they feel more comfortable and will work for you. Two, are the students having fun? That seemed to be a major consensus across the board when my classes established their expectations of me and each other. They wanted to learn, but they wanted a fun environment. I know the best classes I have ever had were one's that I not only learned the most from, but those who established an atmosphere that was relaxed, fun, and tried various methods. I value relevance. Jeff Wilhelm, author and teacher, said at CCIRA one year, that studnets will not learn or buy into anything if they don't feel socially invested in it. If it's not applicable to their lives and the world around them and shows immediate relevance, we lose them. Last, the atmosphere and comradery of the school. I know my first year teaching (not here at AHS) I worked with great people IN my department and we had a great rappport, but as a whole unit, a whole school, there was never that feeling of home and closeness and tradition. I think, no I know, we have something special here at this school.

  10. Yes, I intentionally avoided answering the question. :) You asked, "So, other then your selfish economic self-interest views :-), what really matters to you? What do you (or would you) look for in a school?"

    To be honest, I don't know how to answer that right now because "what really matters" would depend upon the varied needs of my child(ren) and the thoughts of my spouse, neither of which I currently have. I really liked the school that Katie described in her comment, however, so I'll leave it at that.

  11. Bravo to you for thinking about your daughter's wholistic development rather than just her potential CSAP scores!

    I don't know about your district, but in mine, staffs are required to meet several times a year in order to identify "bubble kids" or those who fall within a few points above or below U, PP, P or A. We then set goals for these kids specifically and strategize how we are going to either raise them up to the next level or prevent them from falling down. We then identify our special ed and minority students and strategize how we are going to bring them up too. We do it; but every one of the teachers I know hates it, because by this process, we intentially neglect every child who lies within the "middle of the road" of their particular proficiency level. My colleagues and I all agree that this process is unethical, but we have no choice but to do it. It seems like the administrators who designed this strategy have been out of the classroom too long and have lost touch.

    The over-rated focus on CSAP has done little more than raise a generation who does not love to learn and falsely believes that the joyful journey on which authentic curiosity and inquiry takes us doesn't count and that a test score and a final grade are the only things that really matter in life.

  12. I had a similar quandry when choosing an elementary school for my daughter some years ago. Our family lives in Greenwich Village NYC and had a choice among 3 very different schools. All had high test scores (contrary to the erroneous stereotype of NYC public schools). Yet visits to the schools revealed that each had a very distinctive culture and feeling. Ultimately we went with the feeling that felt most comfortable to us (and fortunately did not have to choose between high and low scoring schools).

    Now that she has graduated from high school, we can say with confidence that we made a good choice. No school is perfect, for sure...and every school can improve. However, one has to make the best choice possible. Tests are helpful as guides, and so are feelings. Combining the two as decision criteria should help a parent make choices with a healthy degree of confidence.

    I wrestle with the test score issue all the time and rail against the overemphasis on the rewards and sanctions for test results in today's school environment.
    Nevertheless, tests are valuable and can reveal a great deal.

    Case in point: I was once principal of an elementary school and part of my responsibility was to meet with parents to explain the meaning of their child's standardized test scores, if they wanted to know.
    I was new to the school and did not know the individual children. I had to talk to parents about their children's performance from their records, not from personal knowledge.

    Time and again, when I indicated to parents what a particular test and subtest scores suggested about their children, they were amazed that I could describe their children so accurately from just a few numbers on a piece of paper. This experience pretty much amazed me too because it showed me a side of testing that I never really grasped before.

    It also gave me a new appreciation for what tests can do to help us if we use them as indicators for learning rather than indicators of learning.

  13. Well, as a mother of four college-age daughters (three undergrads, one in grad school) I've had plenty of opportunities to consider this topic! We've learned a lot about what test scores mean--and how to live without them. In fact, none of my daughters have submitted an SAT score.

    Ultimately, it comes down to preparing your child to be a lifelong learner in a global economy. And it's really not about the test scores--it's about flexibility and creativity.

    Give me two reasonably motivated kids who are bright and supported in their quest to learn. Put one in a school that emphasizes test scores, linear achievement patterns, and the traditional high GPA/mega-list of extracurricular activities/high SAT score approach to college. Let the other one go abroad for a year, take some classes online, meet friends from around the world with different perspectives, and throw in some tutors, a handful of fantastic teachers, and NO testing.

    We tried both routes and here's what we learned--the testing isn't the issue. It's what is--and more importantly, what is NOT--happening in the classroom dedicated to testing. If the lesson plans support the improvement of test scores above all, those kids simply do not have the opportunities to develop flexibility and creativity.

    Our last school district was in Beaverton, Oregon--home of Nike World Headquarters and over 10,000 Intel workers. Not surprisingly, the focus for parents and educators was competition in all things. Scores were high. Achievement was high. And everybody did the same things to get ahead.

    But we can't continue to educate our kids with the idea that they must perform the same tasks in the same way as their peers.

    We must give our kids the chance to think critically, find new ways to do things, and learn how to see and develop their own talents.

    I'm actually writing a book on this topic and would welcome any stories from readers.