Test scores: What do they really tell us?

Back when high stakes tests were the Big New Thing, and Massachusetts was bringing in its MCAS tests, researchers noted early on that the strongest predictor of school performance was demography (including things like median household income, educational attainment, etc.).  This was a finding that was not new, and not unique — indeed, similar results were widespread.  The notion at the time was that the test data would lead to the identification of low-performing schools (leading to interventions that would improve them), and of schools outperforming their demography (possibly indicating the presence of contributing factors that could be replicated elsewhere).

Well, as it turns out, the story has not changed that much.  Here we have now a recent study from New Jersey by Christopher Tienken of Seton Hall Univ. and colleagues,  which finds that a model built on just 3 demographic factors provides the most accurate predictor of middle school student results on the statewide standardized tests. (h/t to Curmudgucation again, which see for more commentary).  The 3 factors are: [a] Percentage of families in a community with incomes over $200,000/year;  [b] percentage of people in a community in poverty, and [c] percentage of people in a community with bachelor’s degrees.    Just as Gaudet in the MCAS paper mentioned above found,the fundamental equation remains:

DEMOGRAPHY + school = results

Tienken et al. have a very insightful discussion of what middle school is all about — the subjects targeted by the standardized tests are hardly the most important things young adolescents are learning during these years.

They also point out that demography is a proxy — that it stands in for things like summer learning opportunities, enriched after-school opportunities, and homes and communities that can provide cognitive and affective advantages, especially for children whose parents can afford them.  Despite all the qualifications and caveats one can make about how various public and private institutions can address some of these issues, the fact is that there has been over the past few decades a fairly steady retreat from such equalizing of opportunities, and in any case they are rarely enough, for enough children.

I think of this as I watch the news of the past few months and years,  and see school choice and similar measures gain in popularity again, and as market thinking continues to consolidate its over-extended hold on American thinking about just about anything.  Suppose I can choose to send my child to a more opulent school, thanks to vouchers from heaven.  This will not help me purchase tutors, or summer camp, or enable me to work fewer hours so I can be at home reading books with my children, or playing music with them, or engaging in chores and crafts…. No wonder some advocates of the mainstream “reforms” of the past few decades are feeling a bit blue about how their big experiment (conducted on our children and teachers and parents and…) is turning out.

How does this look from where you are?

 

 

Note:  The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer alone.  Do not blame MSPnet, TERC, or the National Science Foundation for them.  In fact, don’t “blame” — post a comment and build a conversation!

 

 

 

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