Validating Student Achievement is More Complex than Most People Realize

by theschoolprincipal on October 1, 2010


On the Facebook site, “Teachers’ Letters to Obama,” there’s a great post about what happens when teachers collaborate with one another. I am a big believer in collaboration, and I know the great things a school can accomplish when collaboration becomes part of a school’s culture.  Students at a large high school in Boston, Massachusetts really improved their test scores, and the story was reported in the New York Times. After reading the article, I did have some questions about the test. I e-mailed the office of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University. The AGI researches the gap in minority achievement. So far, I have not received an answer. Here is what I wrote:

Hello,

The report about the Massachusetts school that narrowed the achievement gap is very interesting. However, my question concerns the nature of the tests the students took. In Arizona where I just retired as a principal the state tests in reading and writing are not based on high standards. Our high school teachers spent a great deal of time doing the same thing that these Massachusetts teachers did – until I saw that they were not spending enough time on their own curriculum. I told my teachers that as much as I appreciated what they were doing, that by spending so much time improving scores on  very basic tests we were aiming too low. I told my teachers we would aim instead for academic rigor in our classes and hope that it filtered down to improvement on the state AIMS tests. Please read my blog on my website.

My first post is at the top right under “Blog.” Once you read it you will see why I’m alarmed over the unintended consequences of putting so much emphasis on these state tests. Of course, if the Massachusetts tests are more rigorous than those created in Arizona, this may be just fine. I think I did the right thing because our ACT and SAT scores just came in and our high school scores were above the national and state averages. However, I have to ask: did this happen because schools across the nation are focusing on low level state tests and  their ACT and SAT scores are dropping as a result. But at my high school we have decided to focus on our more rigorous curriculum rather than the state standards so that now our ACT and SAT scores look good because the rest of the nation is focusing on NCLB and their ACT and SAT scores are dropping, making our scores look better?

Katherine Cox, Principal (Retired)

Lake Havasu High School

Lake Havasu City, Arizona

I commend the principal, teachers, and students at Brockton High School for their hard work. I do not wish to diminish in any way what they’ve accomplished. But part of the story must concern the rigor of the test they took. 1) Does it reflect a meaningful, challenging high school curriculum? If it does, show us the way. You’ve got the answers we’ve all been looking for. 2) Has the state of Massachusetts lowered the score for passing the test, as Arizona has?  These questions must be asked. Validating student achievement is a complex issue.

Unintended Consequence #3 of NCLB: the results from tests which use minimum standards are not meaningful; furthermore, if some states  have lowered the “passing score,”  the results are truly not meaningful in any real sense. Yet vast resources of time and money have been spent on these tests. More importantly, students are being pulled away from the true curriculum content they should be learning. (See Unintended Consequences #1 & 2).

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