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Better Use of Test Scores

Standardized tests are here to stay, whether we like them or not. But even if we never agree to use test scores strictly for diagnostic purposes, as Finland does, all is not lost ("Can collaboration between schools, unions fix failing campuses?" Los Angeles Times, Dec. 2).

In what appears to be a promising model, the ABC Unified School District in the low-income city of Hawaiian Gardens, Calif. entered into an agreement with the teachers' union to use schoolwide test scores to guide instruction. This is the antithesis of tying test scores to individual teachers. Under the plan, each teacher sets a goal for student progress.  There is no penalty for failure to reach it. Instead, teachers are given support to improve. A study by Rutgers University found that this approach can add as many as 76 points to a school's Academic Performance Index, which is used as a measure of educational quality.

I've long believed that collaboration rather than competition works best in education because teachers thrive in an atmosphere of trust.  A study by the University of Chicago that looked at 400 city schools from 1990 through 2005 found those that improved the most had a high degree of "relational trust" among the faculty. Autocratic and punitive policies are counterproductive in the long run.  They may initially boost test scores, but the gains fade with time as morale suffers.

There's one caveat: No matter what strategy is implemented within a school, it cannot compete with factors outside of school.  That's not an excuse; it's reality.

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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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