Why look at a score, when the score isn’t the school

After the repositioning of American education (most notable with the advent of No Child Left Behind) the idea of Adequate Yearly Progress and “monitoring” quality took off like a run away train. With one swift legislative decision education was thrown into a measurement nightmare; a nightmare that resulted in a bankroll for testing and assessment groups. In 2012, standardized testing costs states an estimated 1.7 billion dollars per year. While that was less than one percent of the total education costs of states, that number is still hard to swallow. There are really four big players in the testing in the U.S. testing industry; none of which have had a whole lot of fun with management and execution of our nations obsession with standardized tests. Along side those big players are a few non-profit organizations that are noteworthy. One of which is “Great Schools.”

Founded in 1998, Great Schools started as a school directory. Initially a way to help parents find schools, funding from national foundations pushed the idea of rating schools forward. By 2013 the site, its data, and user reviews were a systematic part of Zillow. Using a proprietary Equity and Academic Progress rating system; that system hasn’t been without conflict. But in 2017 they revamped their ratings with an effort to be more inclusive.

But still, the system focused its ratings on the good ol’ standbys of test scores, academic progress, college readiness, equity, and advanced courses. The group more than likely does their best to provide full transparency to their scores. But these scores can carry more weight then they were probably ever intended. Consider the 2017 report by the National Board of Realtors which noted that test scores carry some big weight in decision making for more than 50% of home buyers with children under age eighteen.

We completely lost our minds when No Child Left Behind hit. Educational leaders did as they were told, and then all of a sudden we collectively leapt to the consensus that this one data point was credible enough to tell the full story of our schools. According to the the U.S. Department of Education the point of state assessments is to measure student learning in reading and math (consistently) and science (sporadically).

In 2017, the American Federation of Teachers poll of parents found that parent’s highest priorities were: safe and secure environments, developing knowledge and skills, and ensuring equal opportunity for all kids. In 2018, Phi Delta Kappa similarly found that school safety, college prep, and development of critical thinking skills were key priorities.

Notice no mention of a high priority being “rocking it on test scores” in those lists of parent priorities.

Edutopia even argued that most parents do not judge a school’s quality on test scores. There are 73.7 million individuals under the age of 18 in the United States. Not only do we need to consider what their parents think about the standardized testing movement (and the resulting data); we need to think about the kids as well. It is after all their livelihood, their rising stress levels, and their days at school.

So the looming question is this: Do those assessments really measure what we care about?

The answer to that is no. That single data point and any resulting rating gives us a relative “temperature” of success for our schools and the equivalent of a rotten tomatoes rating used for movies. No matter how you slice it we have been swept away by the allure of the easy measure, the falsity that one single test on one single day tells us that we are either failing or succeeding as educators, students, states, or even a nation.

When we know that one data point doesn’t cut it why don’t we do better? Because we are so busy focusing on the high-stakes (but meaningless) data point that we forget about the others.

  • Think about what we would know about schools if everyone had to report a student, parent, and teacher engagement rating. [Engagement by all three is a predictor of student achievement.]
  • Think about what we would know if we report how many students mastered state standards each year in every grade. [Measures of standards mastery are more likely to improve instructional practice.]
  • Think about what we would know if we tossed away the realtor site ratings and had every school develop a portrait of learning that showed every parent what the learning experience looks like at their school. [True, some seriously talented marketing professionals can spin anything non standardized; True some seriously talented leaders and policy makers can spin anything standardized.]

Our schools are dynamic. Our kids in today’s classrooms are raising the bar for teachers [seven year old boy conversation the other day: “How much do you learn at school that you can’t learn from an App or from YouTube?”]. Our kids in today’s classrooms deserve more than a hat-tip to a single data point; because they prove time and time again that they are much more than that. The people who move to new communities deserve to hear the story of their schools, not have that story silenced by a single rating.

It is our own behaviors that have led us to this place. Our kids are stressed. Our teachers don’t want to try new things when their jobs are on the line. Our home values are impacted by a rating that has little to do with learning and engagement. Our choice in places to live is impacted by our use of specific tools and resources.

We’ve gotten data lazy. We look at a number and believe it speaks the truth when it comes to education. We hold education data in lower regard than online comments about commercial goods. We ignore the story in education and look right to the score. Buy something on Amazon and its a different story; we always read the comments before purchasing.

It is our own behavior that has led us here. It is our own behavior that will lead us away.

If we demand to know the how of learning (not just the what); things might change. If we demand to know the progress of our kids through performance based measures with valid evaluation tools (not just arbitrary scores of single teachers); things might change. If we demand that our schools stop pouring millions into test scores and even more millions into mental health to support our students who are (in part) stressed out from testing; things might change.

Our own behaviors have to change. Why look at a score, when the score isn’t the school.

[Side note: ESSA (the most recent version of NCLB) opens up our assessment options, but after being signed three years ago the general family, child, educator, etc. has not seen any sweeping change in our predominant dialogue. We can reauthorize legislation or we can reimagine it; I vote reimagine.]