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Do High Scores Mean High Quality?

It's always encouraging to read reports of underperforming public schools that were turned around even though they still served the same proportion of disadvantaged students. In 2006, for example, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform released Beating the Odds: How Thirteen NYC Schools Bring Low-Performing Ninth-Graders to Timely Graduation and College Enrollment. More recently, the New York Times published a news story about P.S. 172 in Brooklyn, N.Y. to illustrate how family poverty does not necessarily determine performance ("Brooklyn School Scores High Despite Poverty," Apr. 26).

But before concluding that past explanations for the dismal achievement of some public schools with an overwhelming number of disadvantaged students were merely lame excuses, taxpayers need to take a closer look at exactly what is taking place in these reborn schools. Doing so by no means is meant to diminish their accomplishments, particularly in light of the huge deficits that their students bring to class through no fault of their own. But it is meant to demonstrate that there is far more to educational quality than initially meets the eye.

Take the case of P.S. 172, which is also called the Beacon School of Excellence According to the Times: "By mid-April, nearly every moment in class seemed to touch on the effort to help the children pass" (the state standardized tests). When schools are turned into test preparation factories, it's not at all surprising that scores rise. But at what price? The question has special relevance to P.S. 172 because 80 percent of the student body is poor enough to qualify for free lunches. What about the enrichment they so desperately need? Where will they get it if a large chunk of class time is devoted exclusively to test preparation?

These pertinent questions are not new. In 2002, for example, the Education Trust identified 1,320 schools that it claimed deserved to be called high-flying. The designation applies to schools that rank above the 67th percentile on average on state standardized tests (high-performing) and have more than 50 percent of their students who qualify for free- or reduced-price lunches (high-poverty).

Since the report was released, however, researchers have charged that the criteria used to qualify schools as high-flying were too easy. Douglas Harris, professor of education and economics at Florida State University, found that when he tightened the criteria to include two subjects in two different grades over two different years, the number plummeted to 23. The National Center for Educational Accountability went even further by requiring data based on state tests over three years and in multiple grades and subjects.

But even when the bar is raised, the question still remains if educational quality - as most taxpayers conceive of the term - is being delivered to the neediest students. Test scores are certainly important, but they are only one of multiple measures that need to be considered in rendering judgment. Unfortunately, they have taken precedence over all else, leaving taxpayers with a distorted picture. That's why efforts now underway in Louisiana to make test scores only one component of teacher (and school) evaluation are promising.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, parents have the right to send their children to any school they choose. It's important to remember, however, that despite what many believe parents don't always opt for schools with the best academic results, as the New York Times reported in a front-page story on May 2 ("Despite Push, Success at Charter Schools Is Mixed"). Better discipline, for example, can be more important to parents than anything else. That's fine if that's what parents want. But let's not persist in the fiction that an open educational marketplace will automatically guarantee higher standards.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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