Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Test Scores on Transcripts

Principals in my home district are lobbying the school board to adopt a new policy to place California Standardized Test Scores on students transcripts. The board discussed this last night. I was disappointed that they did not seem to find much wrong with the argument. I am opposed to placing scores on transcripts for many reasons, as a parent but more importantly as an educator and researcher of many years. Here are my main points:

1. Adding a penalty and reward to a test that was NOT graded changes the testing conditions. The purpose of standardized tests is to standardize testing conditions. This is changing the very reliability of the instrument. And the validity of the data. 

2. The strongest argument presented by staff so far is "Other districts are!"  I can just hear my mother in the back ground, "Just because other districts are using cheap gimmicks to raise scores (rather than improving teaching and learning) does not mean we should."  I know of schools where the principal purchased IPODs to raffle during test week (must be present to win). They saw a jump in test scores. Should we set aside funds for a bribe? 

3. There are many examples of raising test scores by focusing on curriculum and instruction that are more professional and in the better interest of students' long term academic success than this proposal.  If the goal is to improve curriculum and instruction, why are we not discussing that? 

4. This strategy engages the most proficient (i.e.: college bound) students only and may exacerbate the achievement gap-- a persistent problem. The fastest and best way to pull up scores in schools (statistically speaking) is to focus on the increasing the lowest scores. Small gains in far below and below basic scores can pull aggregate scores up disproportionately. Yet many of these students are so far behind in the competition for college that transcripts have little value to them. Pulling students in for counseling to set academic goals; immersing them in content area courses that support content area literacy (rather than pulling them out for RTI that causes them to fall behind in standards based course work); assigning faculty mentors who discuss progress in coursework and test scores during tutorial; notifying parents of test scores and offering supports for lower scoring students such as after school test prep courses; heightening community awareness of the importance of test scores for property values and funding; these are strategies that will do a great deal to engage students and families in support of this effort. Of course, this requires effort and thought, which is what the transcript strategy tries to avoid. Engaging students who are disaffected, disengaged and disenfranchised from the schooling process is hard work. It requires courage and educational leadership, qualities we should demand from principals. 

4. The CST produces little information of value about learning; it is a blunt instrument that gives better information about population trends than individual achievement. Or teaching. While we can get individual scores, we do not do item analysis. (see for released test items). 
Item analysis is the only way to yield this kind of information:
90% of teacher A's students answered the item on meiosis correctly- teacher A must be teaching this well. Let's emulate that.
85% of teacher A's students missed all of the questions on Punnett Squares-- teacher A must not cover this. This is a heavily tested topic. Let's review how we teach this and design more effective instruction.
The best way for schools to determine how to improve their coverage in order to optimize test scores is to have department level meetings, with the support of the site educational leader, to review the testing blueprint ( compare it to what is being taught and develop rich, engaging units of study around heavily tested topics and themes. You do not need better test scores to do this. In fact, you don't need test scores at all. You just need professional learning communities and administrators who are not afraid to tell their staff that test scores in fact are related to teaching and learning and that teachers CAN raise scores. Back to educational leadership.

It comes down to curriculum and instruction. Candy might help. But I think learning is better for long term health. 

Taking the low road here would signal to me and to many people who are too smart to be fooled by this silly argument that our board does not have faith in our staff's ability to improve instruction and learning by focusing on instruction and learning. What I hear when I listen to these two principals is desperation. I hear an adult blaming students for their own failure to engage, inspire and teach. I feel embarrassed that our district would even consider sending this insulting message to students "Well, we've done OUR best with you, clearly your scores are low because you are not trying hard enough." It is time we all stood up and acted like adults who take responsibility for our work and our children.

Sometimes the right thing is not the easy thing. I think it is time for the board to send a message to staff that teaching and learning matter most. Focus on this, test scores will follow. Let students in on the secret-- under NCLB these scores matter for your school-- they will come through. Just like they do for other inter-school competitions in sports, music and robotics. Have faith in the teaching staff, and in students. Demand educational leadership from administrators.