Standardized testing is a flawed yardstick for assessing educational success • Nevada Current

Listening recently to a local political candidate denigrate public education in Nevada was very disheartening. Not because of character flaws or perceived inability of the candidate. He, like most voters, believes that national and state school rankings based on standardized test scores accurately measure school quality and effectiveness.

Improving public education seems to be on the agenda of each local, state and national political candidate; even though they are powerless to do so. Their prescribed remedies for curing the ills of public schools are more harmful than helpful.

Those disaffected with public schools are misled by the illusion that individual differences in academic ability are due to school quality. There is no valid evidence that school environments or instructional practices are responsible for gaps in reading ability or standardized test scores.

Simply put, schools and districts with higher standardized test score averages have students that have higher test scores. The primary difference remains the composition of the student body. Since their inception, standardized test results have always favored wealth over poverty when comparing different populations of test-takers.

There is nothing more fallacious than national rankings from media sources such as U.S. News and World Report. U.S. News proudly proclaims, “Since 1983 they have provided education rankings and helped parents and students find the perfect school.”

This should be interpreted as: Buy a home in an upper-middle class or wealthy neighborhood and surround your children with high achieving students or send them to more selective private or charter schools that are more adept at excluding low achieving students, and your children will be in schools with higher test scores.

School ranks remain largely unchanged over the past four decades and consistently reflect the socio-economic demographics of student populations. Suburban schools outperform inner-city schools in every metropolitan area. Some regular public schools have been supplanted by magnet and theme schools that have siphoned-off higher achievers within their districts.

Common levels of performance are not attainable in any field. Statements whining about low proficiency rates in particular schools or districts demonstrate the desire to dismantle public education. Parents and many educators have been hoodwinked into accepting standardized test scores as effective measures of learning and academic success.

Editorial and opinion pieces stating that Henderson or Summerlin schools “outperform” Las Vegas or North Las Vegas schools are made based on state test score averages. Instructional differences between schools have little or no impact on test score averages. Demographics determine averages.

There are no proven instructional methods or academic interventions that overcome disparate academic outcomes when comparing student populations. Schools across the valley mirror the situation in other metropolitan communities.

Poverty has a major influence on test score averages. Other socio-cultural and non-educational factors, such as the number of English learners and special education students, and parent education levels influence test score averages.

About 70% of Nevada students reside in Clark County, so CCSD largely determines test score averages for the state. Because of disproportionality of the previous factors, Nevada will always be near the bottom when compared to other states.

Using the nationwide teacher shortage as an excuse for poor academic performance of schools with large numbers of students in poverty is misleading. Universal instructional methods would be in place if common outcomes were possible.

Teachers with reasonably sized classrooms can have a profoundly positive effect across many measures in education, but little impact on individual standardized test scores. Low test scores are not a valid reason to question the funding of public schools. About 80% of a public school budget is the cost of personnel.

Competitive salaries are a good first step in attracting and retaining quality personnel, but more aggressive and creative solutions are needed. Suggestion: Create a local pipeline of educators for CCSD by expanding partnerships with institutions of higher education across the valley to effectively and cooperatively train PreK – 12 teachers and other educational personnel.

It is important to stress the importance of funding preschool programs. Preschool education may be our last best hope to improve all academic outcomes, including test scores. Academic success for individual students is largely determined prior to entering kindergarten.

The issue is not just the misperception that standardized test scores are an accurate measure of school quality. Educators also need to stop pretending that they largely influence individual test scores. The public needs to stop pretending that the only policies that might improve academic performance are educational ones.  

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