Saturday, May 08, 2010

Testing Doesn't Measure Schools

Last week, American Enterprise Institute carried Charles Murray's Why Charter Schools Fail The Test.

The latest evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program, the oldest and most extensive system of vouchers and charter schools in America, came out last month, and most advocates of school choice were disheartened by the results.
Murray remains a charter school advocate, but doesn't think tests of individual students are a good measure of schools. He has been saying this for some time with few people listening, so he hopes the recent studies provide a teachable moment for educators of all ideological leanings.
So let's not try to explain them away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers--measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

It should come as no surprise. We've known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn't have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.
We like to think that schools are one of the dominant features of the education of society's children. Perhaps this is because we spend so much money on it, or they spend so much time there, or it's one of the few things people have in common. We spent lots of money to send our kids to private Christian schools, and I don't regret a dime of it. Okay, maybe a few bucks of it.

But it was not academic superiority that was the driver in this, though the Christian schools exceeded the local public offerings in most ways. While there was some chance they would not have thriven in a different environment, it is likely they would have done just as well. Nor was I worried about their being exposed to the teaching of evolution; rampant liberalism maybe, but evolution would have been a slight positive. And, when all is counted, you are going to have to undo some of the school's teaching of your child wherever they go. We decided we'd rather fight some battles than others.

Being in an environment that was unapologetic about its devotion to Christianity, Western Civilization, and writing proficiency were important. We think the emotional support they received was somewhat better. We think smaller schools in general are a better environment. We hoped to load the dice a bit on choice of friends.

But from earliest years we said quite openly that educating our children was our responsibility, not the school's, and acted on that. This sometimes annoyed them when we would have higher expectations than the teacher on what was an acceptable paper or project. (You can still get Ben to shake his head about his New Hampshire History project in 4th grade. Even at the time he would say "It's already an A+! There is no A+++!" But Tracy has taught NH History for two decades, and his project was going to be the most thorough in the annals of NH education. And it was, too.) The two Romanians in particular saw this as bizarre.

I would not say out loud what I then knew to be true but was even less acceptable in conversation in the 80's and 90's: that genetic inheritance was the dominant factor anyway.

1 comment:

Der Hahn said...

This is definitely the elephant in the room that the leadership on both sides doesn't want to acknowledge, though I think that pro-school choice folks are a bit more likely to voice the concern. The pro-public school crowd dances around this even though they find it useful (see 'diversity') because they in the past have agressively rejected the enculturation argument in favor of universal public schooling.