Have standardized tests lost their luster?

The story in Education Week carried a provocative headline: “State test results are in. Are they useless?”

So, are they? The story doesn’t go so far as to declare standardized tests a waste of time, but it cautions against using the latest results to evaluate schools and keep track of student performance.

It quotes testing experts and consultants to the effect that you shouldn’t compare spring 2021 test results with those from previous years. In spring 2020, Indiana and most other states canceled their tests. In spring 2021, many schools were online, and test participation was uneven.

“I think the default assumption for 2021 is that they’re not comparable (to 2019 scores),” Stanford researcher Sean Reardon told the publication.

The Indiana Department of Education and its testing consultant, the Center for Assessment, took that approach when they released 2021 ILEARN and ISTEP results in July. They said the tests indicated the pandemic had a “substantial” impact on student learning but warned against over-interpreting them.

“Due to variables in instruction from COVID-19 and the disruption of 2020 assessments, this year’s results should not be compared to 2019 results, as these 2021 results present a new Indiana baseline,” the department said in a news release.

New framework for accountability

A decade ago, in the Mitch Daniels-Tony Bennett era, it seemed there was nothing standardized tests wouldn’t do. They would tell us which schools were “good” and which were “bad,” letting us label them with A-to-F grades. They would tell us which teachers to give raises.

But even the most pro-testing state officials seemed to start losing faith in 2019, when results for the new ILEARN assessment came out. The test was tougher, standards were higher, and proficiency rates fell sharply. Legislators, worried their constituents’ schools would look bad, scrambled to pass “hold harmless” legislation to exempt schools from grades.

This year, the General Assembly went further and repealed the consequences that public, charter and voucher-accepting private schools used to face for repeated low grades.

Lawmakers called for using an internet “dashboard” of data as a new framework for school accountability. Instead of relying on test scores, the system will use as yet undetermined measures of five characteristics: academic mastery; career and postsecondary readiness; communication and collaboration; work ethic; and civic, financial and digital literacy.

Secretary of Education Katie Jenner said in a statement that the new approach recognizes “that our students are so much more than just a single data point.” In other words, children are more than a test score.

US News: worse than useless

U.S. News and World Report apparently didn’t get the memo. The one-time weekly news magazine, which now specializes in ranking nearly everything, hit a new low this month by ranking the nation’s elementary and middle schools. And the rankings are based on standardized test scores in math and English. From the 2018-19 school year.

Apparently without setting foot inside a single school building, U.S. News now claims to rank preschools, elementary, middle and high schools from top to bottom in every state – more than 100,000 schools.

When I heard about this, I promised myself I wouldn’t look. Then I looked. Big mistake.

The rankings are just what you would expect: With a few exceptions, wealthy schools that serve affluent families are at the top; under-resourced schools and those serving poor families are at the bottom.

As education historian Jack Schneider writes in an op-ed for Boston radio station WBUR, these high-profile rankings can do real harm. They further the myth that schools serving privileged students are “good.” And they fuel racial and class segregation as privileged parents seek out those schools.

“Americans want their schools to do many things for young people, and test scores tell us little to nothing about most of those,” Schneider writes. They tell us little or nothing about a school’s culture and climate, student engagement, teacher skills and the breadth of the curriculum, for example.

U.S. News, along with test scores, tacks on context-free data about student demographics, the number of teachers and counselors and district spending. It tells readers the information “can help you find the right school for your child.”

It can’t. But rankings (of almost anything) are eye candy. It’s hard not to click when we see them online. The more we click, the more ads U.S. News can sell. And selling ads is the name of the game.

That’s why I won’t provide a link to the rankings. Please, don’t look.

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