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Does Publishing Test Scores Matter?

Tingley-021 colorWhen the New York State Department of Education started issuing school report cards over ten years ago, Richard Mills, Commissioner of Education at the time, said that people all over the state would be talking about them – at the dinner table, on buses, at work, at the grocery store.  The report cards would change the face of education by making everything transparent.  Now with the click of a mouse anyone could see student demographics, passing rates on regents exams, and school finances.  Anyone could see how his or her school ranked in comparison with so-called “similar” schools, although many educators questioned how the schools spread out across the state could be considered similar.  Still, the department of education insisted that with transparency would come real accountability and consequently school improvement.  The new report cards would change the face of education in the state.

The school report cards did generate interest, even consternation among school people.  Among the general public, not so much.   For one thing, there weren’t a lot of surprises in the data.  The results for most of the schools in any area were generally similar.  Predictably, smaller schools fared better than larger schools.  Wealthy districts fared better than poor districts. In some schools, it wasn’t hard to match up test scores with individual teachers.  In my own experience, the most useful data for budget hearings was the cost to the district for special education services, information that the general public found inordinately surprising.

But did school report cards change the face of education in New York State?  Did everyone suddenly become more accountable?  Did education drastically improve?  Well, if that had been the case, perhaps New York wouldn’t have recently jumped on the bandwagon of standardizing teacher evaluations and including teachers’ test scores.  And maybe the NY Times wouldn’t have felt it necessary to publish the test scores of 18,000 city teachers.

As you recall, the same scenario played out last year when the LA Times did basically the same thing while the unions wailed and gnashed their teeth.  On both coasts teachers objected to the inaccuracies of the reports.  The unions tried to stop publication of test scores on the grounds that it violated teachers’ privacy rights, considered by the judge (and by many others) a specious argument. Test pattern

But in the end, did publishing teachers’ scores in LA have any effect on education there?  Were teachers with poor scores fired or shamed into improving?  Were teachers with high scores promoted or rewarded?  Did parents insist that their students have only teachers with solid test scores?  Did some teachers resign in mortification? No, no, no, and no.  I expect the same results in NY.  Like school report cards, the published data is more interesting to the school people than to the general public.

We waste a lot of time on political posturing and needless provocation that breeds righteousness on one side and resentment and anger on the other. I fail to see how this nonsense improves the educational lives of children.

A quote generally attributed to Columbia professor Wallace Sayre goes something like this:  “In any dispute the intensity of feeling is inversely proportional to the value of the issues at stake.  That is why academic politics are so bitter.”   We need to focus on improving schools, not on test score wars.  


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