Test Scores And Grades

Said I might pop in, so don’t blame Mehta for this one…Reading my hometown paper this AM I noticed that WaPo’s usually solid Ian Shapira turned in something of a lemon on test scores and student grades. It’s a complicated issue and the story doesn’t do it justice. Of course there are going to be students who don’t test well, that’s a pretty minor issue that garners headlines but is dealt with relatively easily in public policy through a meaningful appeals system that takes into account multiple measures. Hardly front page news.

Where Shapira falls down is by not engaging on the larger question about whether teacher grades are the best indicator of student learning. He’s got anecdotes, but on this one there is also data. Grades are surely one important indicator, but the best or only one? The chart below shows data from the Prospects evaluation of Title I (pdf). What it shows is the wide-variation in achievement among students with the same grades between high and low-poverty schools in 1991. Basically, students getting an “A” in 7th-grade math and reading were only at the 35th and 36th percentile on standardized tests while “A” students in low-poverty schools were at the 87th and 81st. Some of those As aren’t so meaningful.* The gaps do decline as achievement declines, but the trend is hard to miss.

Source: Prospects: Final Report on Student Incomes. ABT Associates, 1997.

All industries have some sort of external accountability. For some it’s government, for others the relentless discipline of the marketplace, and for some a hybrid, which is basically where we’re driving toward in public education. The question of grades versus test scores really boils down to that question, what sort of external benchmarks do we want in a public system like ours? Right now, standardized tests, which help provide information and leverage to attack the inequities you see in the chart above are the worst way to do that, except for all the others.

*By the way, this is not some radical revelation, it’s something just about anyone who has taught at the collegiate level will tell you. Shapira probably could have landed some devastating blind quotes from VA and MD college profs about the differences in preparation in those states, irrespective of high school grades.

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