As a nation, we are preoccupied with test scores: maybe even consumed by them. We use test scores to rate and rank schools. We track test score trends to see if schools are improving, staying flat, or in decline. We use test scores to market schools. We even use test scores to shame schools that appear not to be measuring up. But what if we are monitoring the wrong indicator, or at least not the best measure of school quality and performance?
We know that there is a high correlation between test scores and the socio-economic status of students’ families. This correlation has consistently fed the perception that families with financial means choose or demand schools that are effective and the best schools serve middle and upper-middle-class families. On the surface, the connection seems obvious.
However, two recent studies call this perception into question. The first study, conducted at Stanford University, looked beyond test scores to measure school effectiveness. The research focused on the learning growth demonstrated by students over a period of years. The study included achievement data for students in grades three through eight from 11,000 school districts.
The research concluded that despite where students started on the performance continuum relative to other students, their academic growth over time was not predicted by their third-grade scores. In fact, students in many schools and school districts in high poverty areas demonstrated more growth than their counterparts in wealthier neighborhoods and communities. Yet, their growth was not necessarily reflected in the highest test scores.
While early childhood and initial elementary grade performance is heavily influenced by community socio-economic-related factors, such as income and family education levels, growth between third and eighth grade appears to have minimal relationship to these factors. The perception that students in poverty are not capable of learning at a rate comparable to more economically advantaged students appears not to be accurate.
A second study conducted by St. Louis University earlier this year found similar patterns in schools in the St. Louis metro area. In multiple schools with high concentrations of families in poverty, students demonstrated growth that in many cases exceeded learning growth in schools that served students from more economically advantaged families.
These and other studies call into question the wisdom of relying on test scores as the sole or even primary measure of school effectiveness and quality. In fact, some schools with higher test scores may be generating lower learning growth trajectories than schools with lower test scores.
So, what should educators, parents, and communities take from these findings? First, we need to focus on learning growth data rather than rely solely on current test scores as proof of effectiveness. We cannot determine what happens in the lives of students before they reach us, but we can focus our attention and efforts on ensuring that they are making progress each day, week, and year.
Second, we need to coach students to focus on their learning growth. When students see their progress and understand their power to determine their progress, we can help them to counter the confidence-sapping impact of comparisons with other students who may be at different points on the academic performance continuum. Of course, over time learning growth will also translate into better test scores.
Third, we need to advocate for accountability systems that consider the trajectory of student learning and not solely reflect the advantages that families and communities provide before students start formal education. If we want to make responsible comparisons of school performance, learning growth must be given at least equal status to test scores.
The bottom line: We should not continue to ignore the importance of learning growth as we consider the performance of schools. Test scores have a role to play, but the extent to which socio-economic status correlates with and in many cases accounts for performance on standardized assessments must also inform any judgements we make about how well schools are performing.