August 22, 2014

A closer look at test scores—and what we should be doing

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By William J. Mathis

 

With a fervor usually reserved for the list of delinquent taxpayers, the annual release of state test scores excites a focus on schools that “failed” to make adequate yearly progress. As important as these test scores, this superficial inspection of the number of students passing a high, yet arbitrary, test cut-off is not a very helpful picture of our schools. Nor does it tell us what needs to be done.

How is Vermont really doing?

We are tied for second place in the nation on eighth grade math scores and are fourth highest in fourth grade. Both the state and the nation have steadily improved since 1996 and Vermont has maintained its lead. If Vermont were an independent nation, we would tie for sixth and seventh on math and science—in the world.

In reading, both the nation and Vermont show a more sluggish growth pattern. Nevertheless, we are tied for first place in eighth grade and sixth place in fourth grade. Reading scores are more susceptible to family and social influences while math scores are more directly linked to schools. This means we need to look at factors both inside and outside the school.

Contrary to the often-heard myth about “failing” schools, every ethnic group, as well as students in poverty, have registered continuous and positive growth over the past 30 years. Yet, the much-maligned No Child Left Behind law requires states to report test scores in terms of “adequate yearly progress,” which requires all students to meet very high standards by next year. Observers from every perspective scoff at this unrealistic system. The harm in this inherently negative approach is that it hides the huge progress that has been made and wrongly declares success to be a failure.

Yet, the good news must not let us ignore the national and state achievement gap. But the nature of the gap is shifting. It is increasingly becoming a wealth gap—which is 40 percent larger than it was 30 years ago. The ethnic gap still remains but the wealth gap is twice as large. (To be sure, there is a large connection between wealth and ethnic identity). Following the national pattern, Vermont’s wealth gap is greater than the African American gap. Unfortunately, our wealth gap increases across the grade levels in a consistent and unchanging pattern.

As Stanford Professor Sean Reardon points out, more affluent students have far richer pre-school years and these effects carry forward through the school years. Further, the advantaged parents are able to spend more time with their children, provide more activities, read “Goodnight Moon” to their children, send the kids to summer camps, and be the soccer, museum and music chauffeur.

Alan Krueger, chair of the Council of Economic Advisers and Princeton professor, notes the rapid increase in children’s enrichment activities for the affluent while the lowest-earning parents have only been able to minimally improve their child support activities. The hollowing out of the middle class and the increasing economic inequalities have a direct effect on the quantity and quality of parenting time and thus, achievement scores. Schools are not only the path to economic mobility. They are also a reflection of and are highly affected by these economic and social policies.

Visitors to schools in the nation’s neediest rural and urban areas would be hard pressed to claim that the educational opportunities we provide are equal or even adequate. Despite our embrace of the “American Dream,” Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz tells us that we now have less equality of opportunity and less social mobility than almost any other advanced industrial country. Tax, social and educational policies have combined to make the gaps greater and mobility less. Without closing the educational opportunity gap, we cannot expect to close the achievement gap.

Thus, test-taking combined with sanctioning schools will not have broad and sustained success by itself. While schools must continuously improve, a combination of approaches is needed if we are to have good schools and an equitable and democratic society. Among the key strategies:

• Tax reform and economic equality are essential for educational reform. Economic inequalities threaten to destabilize society and thwart social mobility. This is disempowering to students and their aspirations.

We can be proud that Vermont enjoys arguably the most equitable funding system in the nation. Yet, more affluent communities spend more (and score higher) than less affluent communities. This fiscal inequity is due, in part, to the flat tax nature of the income sensitivity mechanism and unbalanced funding for special needs.

• Provide universal preschool and extended school days and school years. These are among the most powerful proven tools for closing the achievement gap.

• Expand tutoring and class size reduction policies. These are proven policy mechanisms, especially in the early grades. Improve teacher capabilities through re-tooled professional development.

While schools serve greater purposes than test scores, educational and social improvement relies on a virtuous circle where income equality encourages better parenting, our schools provide for unmet needs, our graduates learn higher academic and personal skills, and these, in turn, provide for a stronger society and economy. Unfortunately, national economic trends and policies reflect more of a downward spiral. If we continue on this path, the effect will be increasing inequalities in school opportunities and school outcomes.

William J. Mathis is a member of the state board of education, a former Vermont superintendent of schools and is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center. The views expressed are his own.

 
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