Column: Reading too much into school test scores can be a mistake

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 1, 2002

Throughout my life I’ve noticed how numbers often seem to mean more to people than they should. The government needs my Social Security number in order to recognize who I am. My bank needs my account number. Saying that 1,364 people &uot;like&uot; something seems more impressive than simply saying a lot of people do. In fact, we seem to find any sort of information that comes in numbers more meaningful, like how many chickens live in Freeborn County or how many chocolate bars you would have to eat to provide you with your recommended daily allowance of calcium.

For some reason that I don’t understand, if information has a number attached to it, we treat it as more scientific and therefore more true. But what the information that comes in numerical form actually means and what relation it has to whatever is being measured is hardly ever explained.

I pondered this phenomenon as I read the news about test scores last week. The State of Minnesota has now released test scores for last year’s third and fifth grade basic skills tests in reading and math. And those scores were quickly reported to people everywhere via the news media, including here in Freeborn County.

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In fact, the press often gets the results before school districts do, leaving officials of school districts who didn’t &uot;beat&uot; the scores of neighboring districts with an unwinnable situation: anything they say after the information has been printed will only look like excuses. And this unwinnable situation is partly the fault of the media itself. Their emphasis on the comparisons between schools and districts distorts the actual importance of the tests in the life of a student and does a disservice to schools and teachers.

Comparing schools is, of course, one of the purposes of those test scores, but only one. They provide bureaucrats and politicians in St. Paul with numbers &045; hard data &045; as they assess the costs and benefits of public education. As they decide whether to reward or punish schools, they need numbers to measure progress towards the goal they set. But there are a lot of good things going on at school that don’t get measured, and are difficult to measure at all with &uot;tests&uot;.

For one thing, the test scores reported last week don’t reflect the progress students make from when they first set foot in a school. They don’t take into account how long any student has been enrolled in a school. Did they just move here this year? Have they lived here all their lives? The basic skills test scores only show what students knew on the day of the test. And some schools test all students automatically; while others only test those whom the teachers are pretty sure can pass the test. It’s hardly fair to compare results when the districts aren’t even administering the tests the same way.

As a teacher, I use tests to assess student knowledge. But those tests are only one way of evaluating what they have learned. Putting so much emphasis on one element of that package &045; the numbers right and wrong on a single test &045; leads to an imbalanced, unfair perspective. It doesn’t provide an accurate picture of any one student’s ability to learn, because student learning needs to be measured in many different ways.

The main reason I am so worried about how information about test scores is reported is that putting so much stress on test scores can be dangerous. It can increase the suspicion between society and schools, leading to mistrust of teachers based on only one component of a student’s efforts at school. Our obsession with testing and test scores is already leading our society to impose heavy-handed mandates related solely to what the tests measure. And with the new federal education policies currently being promoted, it’s leading to calls for even more testing.

Schools are increasingly put in the position of having to raise test scores or else, and time and energy is redirected away from comprehensively teaching and learning a subject in favor of teaching and learning how to pass tests. More often than we would like to believe, teaching critical thinking skills and problem-solving lose out over the ability to cram information into their heads, the information the tests will ask them to spew out.

David Rask Behling is a rural Albert Lea resident. His column appears Tuesdays.