I am not sure how I got on their mailing list, but I’ve been getting regular emails from a nonprofit called Great Schools. Their mission is to “… inspire and guide parents to become effective champions of their children’s education at home and in their communities.” I can’t really say anything bad about a mission statement like that, so I let them have some space in my inbox. Recently, they sent me a link to a video claiming to offer the “truth” about test scores. The key themes of the video were that parents should:
—pay attention to improvements in scores over time
—consider specific subject scores in terms of their children
—pay attention to the performance of children like theirs
Let’s dig into these “truths” a bit further.
Improvement over time
To the right is a table to help illustrate this concept. The table includes hypothetical data from two schools over three years.
If you relied only on this aggregate approach to the data, it looks like School 1 is enjoying steady growth from year to year, while School 2 is stuck at the halfway mark, and overall, they are.
We all make this mistake, even people who have been trained to know better. We forget that numbers represent information from groups of children who are changing grade levels. Overall, Hamilton County schools have a 98.4 percent promotion rate, meaning most of the grade 3 kids in 2010 are grade 4 kids in 2011, etc. That’s why Table 2 offers a more comprehensive snapshot.
When we examine the same data in Table 1 along with the grade-level data, we get a different picture. For an example, I highlighted the path of the 2010 grade 3 students. In School 1, they entered with a 47 percent math proficiency level. In 2011, that cohort was at 45 percent and stayed there as grade 5 students in 2012. In School 2, the 2010 grade 3 students came in at 50 percent and rose to 55 percent in 2011 and 60 percent in 2012.
School 1 showed more overall progress, but School 2 showed more progress in the 2010 grade 3 cohort over time. Of course, student cohorts are not locked into place. In reality, students move from school to school and some are retained in their current grade, so those things play a role. Still, it is important to be mindful of how cohorts of students grow over time.
Specific subject scores
The second thing we parents are asked to do is to pay attention to specific subject scores. I am a believer that all kids have the potential to succeed in all subjects, but I also believe that the ease of that success is somewhat determined by natural ability. Knowing in which subjects your child will need extra support (either because they excel or lag in understanding), in combination with how well a specific school tends to do on that subject, is essential. I’ve always had a passion and proclivity for reading, so an excellent reading or English teacher wasn’t essential to my general success. Math, on the other hand, did not come as easy, and it wasn’t until deep into my college years that I came across a series of teachers who could make it make sense. I could have used those people in grades K through 12.
Performance of like children
There are many reasons why different groups of children perform at different levels at different schools. It is so complicated and important that the whole idea of “closing the gap” between different student subsets is part of the state’s accountability model. When considering a school, it is essential to examine how a student like yours tends to perform at said school. I’ve been stressed out lately because we are in the middle of moving, and our new nest will put our almost-kindergartner in a different school than we originally planned. Overall, the school in our new zone did not look as strong. Once we dug in and looked at subgroup info, however, we were not as concerned because performance trends were about the same.
This illustrates another issue: I have the advantage of academic and professional experience in deciphering education data, so I knew where and how to look for the information I needed. I hope my past and future columns can help you do the same.
The truth of the matter
I like Great Schools' factors of growth over time and subject- and kid-specific performance as good places to start in terms of using test scores to determine the school that is “right” for my kids. Of course, there are other factors to keep in mind.
In Tennessee, we have value-added measures to examine, and those can play a role in deciding which path is best for your child. Take a look at the most recent Hamilton County report card. To pull up some grade- and subject-specific information similar to the kind I’ve discussed, click on the “Achievement” tab. Right above the header reading “Academic Achievement Grades,” you will see an option to pull up “Additional Academic Achievement Data.” If you select that option, you will be able to produce some very comprehensive reports. Other things to consider are scores from ACT Inc.’s EXPLORE, PLAN and ACT instruments, starting as early as grade 8. Beyond test data, there are other issues, such as diversity, presence of specialty programs, and overall fit given your student’s personality and interests (think of arts, sports and technical classes).
Overall, I suppose I agree with what Great Schools had to say in their “truth about test scores” video, and I certainly value their tips. While there are other variables and factors to keep in mind beyond data when evaluating a school, their tips provide instructions on how to start. By looking at their three metrics, a parent or stakeholder can walk away with a fairly comprehensive picture of a school’s level of “greatness.” Only by taking the data into account, along with your child’s individual abilities, interests and specific needs, can you truly come to your own “truth” about test scores.
Keith White is PEF Chattanooga’s director of research and effectiveness. Feel free to reach out to him by email with any questions, comments or requests. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.