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Careful How You Use Those Test Scores

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Amy Morton, the "chief academic officer" at Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit, recently submitted a letter to the editor of my local paper with the endorsement of all the school superintendents in Adams County, which is where I live, but it's making the rounds in the state with other superintendents' names attached to it. You might have seen a similar letter in the newspaper where you live, even if you don't live in Pennsylvania. After all, we're not the first ones to travel this road.

Here's what it says: If you have kids in school, they're going to get their standardized test scores back soon, and those scores are probably going to be bad. Really bad. Maybe spectacularly bad.

How do we know this? Well, it's simple: The state ramped up expectations for students recently by instituting a more rigorous curriculum (it's Common Core, by the way, in case you didn't know), and simultaneously changed the passing scores for the tests it gives. In other words, they moved the goal line after the game had already started and then changed the number of points required to win. Morton's letter is essentially a plea for mercy, a request that parents not lose their cool if they discover that the state has suddenly labeled their previously "advanced" student merely "basic."

Just trust us, Morton says. Everything will be fine in the long run.

But will it?

I'm personally not all that concerned about the shenanigans Pennsylvania's Department of Education engages in as it tries to convince some invisible, but obviously very influential, constituency that demonstrating our testing prowess is the key to securing our children's future. Maybe China is watching, waiting to find out if the Americans are actually serious about competing in the 21st century. Maybe the Germans are waiting with bated breath to assess our creditworthiness and only need to be assured that we have instituted desperately needed education reforms to sleep more soundly at night. Maybe Pasi Sahlberg is wondering if we'll ever catch up. Surely somebody out there cares that we're doing this.

That doesn't mean we should. It doesn't really matter to me what a passing score is on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA), as long as I can be certain that people are not misusing the "data" produced by these tests to do exactly the opposite of what they claim to be doing.

See, test scores don't do anything to make my kids more competitive in some opaque economic future. In fact, they do the opposite. Too often, they give school officials an excuse to segregate kids into classes based on their perceived abilities, abilities supposedly revealed by a mysterious test that the state manipulates without much transparency whatsoever. We can't even be sure where the test came from or who authored it since Gov. Tom Corbett, frightened by conservative caterwauling about Common Core, chose not to join either of the two major testing consortia producing exams to match the standards. Thanks to Corbett's flip-flop, we ended up with a watered-down version of Common Core called "Pennsylvania Core" and a PSSA exam that no one was prepared to give or take. Thanks for nothing, Tom.

Here in our district, the schools have had access to this year's scores for some time and, of course, used them (along with projected "value-added" scores and scores from previous years) to make placement decisions about students. They think they're using multiple criteria to evaluate student aptitude for learning. But if you use a past score, a current score, and a projected future score from the same test to judge aptitude, is that really using multiple criteria? Seems like one criterion to me, split three ways. Basing academic placement decisions on a single test score, as my local schools do, doesn't make students "globally competitive." It reinforces existing inequalities and consigns many students to endless hours of boredom, making adult claims that school is actually important ring hollow. 

So I'm not concerned about how parents and students respond to the new test scores; I'll take mine (or, rather, my kids'; or are they really mine?) with a grain of salt and congratulate my children for once again navigating an increasingly unreasonable system that doesn't seem to provide any benefits, tangible or otherwise, to them. No, I'm not concerned about their scores; I'm concerned about how school officials will respond to them. In the end, I really don't care what label the state gives my kid. I care about how the label is used to justify putting him in one class instead of another, or how it will be used to deny him access to, say, an Advanced Placement course four years from now because he didn't take all the right pre-requisite courses before hand. I'm concerned about how labels are used to justify remediation and lower expectations. I worry about how this kind of labeling is weakening public education.

And, make no mistake about it, it is. When the state, which insists on assigning labels to students, suddenly changes those labels—when a kid who was once "proficient" is suddenly proclaimed to be "below basic"—it loses all educational credibility. Is this the message we want to be sending to a skeptical public already being served glass after glass of school reform Kool-Aid?

I propose that our local superintendents, and others from around the state, sign a new letter. I'll draft it myself. It will state plainly that test scores won't be used to make high-stakes decisions about students. Period. Maybe that will buy us some time to work on figuring out a more meaningful, and more humane, way to evaluate what students, and their teachers, are doing in school. I hear all the time that the tests are improving. Yeah, maybe. But there are alternatives we could explore, including some that involve testing but counsel us to use the results differently. One of the smartest things we could do is start using tests exclusively for educational purposes, not for the purposes of accountability. If we spent more time seriously looking into these alternatives, pre-emptive apology letters to parents might not even be necessary. Imagine that.

Do our school leaders have the guts to stare down the invisible monitors of education reform and do the right thing for kids, or will they just keep telling us to take our medicine and wait for things to turn around? We should find out soon enough.

Note: A version of this piece first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer, where it was featured in the "Think Tank." Read more at by visiting the site. As always, don't forget to read the comments!

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