"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Thursday, May 13, 2010

When Test Scores No Longer Matter

A slightly different version of this op-ed was posted Valerie Strauss at The Answer Sheet earlier today:

When Test Scores No Longer Matter

Jim Horn

When standardized test scores these days don’t conform to the demands of the official political playbook written by the bold reformers (as they like to be known), such test scores may be summarily denounced in the press as meaningless. On May 9, for example, New Jersey’s Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who is leading a charge with Governor Christie to remake the state’s public schools in the corporate education reform image, denounced New Jersey Public Schools as a “wretched system” and the state’s #1 national rankings on the NAEP in both 4th and 8th grade reading and math as “irrelevant.” As Star Ledger columnist Bob Braun quipped in response to Schundler’s outrageous conclusions, “Good news is always bad news to those who see themselves as "reformers" — no sense reforming what works.”

A couple of other prominent examples of dissing-the-facts phenomenon are worth noting. After years of increasingly caustic applications of the same test and punish measures and market solutions favored by the perpetual education reform machine, the latest research findings show little to no reason to continue advancing either vouchers or charters as national policy solutions to low test scores in high-poverty schools. The CREDO National Charter School Study by Margaret Raymond and her colleagues at Stanford last June showed that twice as many charters nationwide have worse scores (37%) than those with higher scores (17%), when compared to public schools with similar demographics. Forty-six percent of charters showed no significant difference in test scores when compared to the public schools. Now name me a drug that would ever be approved by the FDA with those kinds of results for patients in need of relief. And yet these previously untested charter pills, just like the teacher performance pay potion we are now being asked to swallow, continue to be sold to an unsuspecting public with no labeling and no warning about what this latest research shows or what the best scientific opinion advises (see National Research Council’s Letter Report to the U.S. Department of Education on the Race to the Top Fund).

And just last month, another bout of bad news, this time for voucher advocates, arrived in the form of The Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Summary of Third Year Reports. An ongoing project funded primarily by conservative foundations and headed by privatization advocates, Patrick Wolf, Jay Greene, and John Witte, this longitudinal study of the Milwaukee voucher experiment found, as it did last year and the year before that

Consistent with the results reported in previous years, the subset of MPCP [Milwaukee Parental Choice Program] students that took the WKCE scored somewhat lower than income-disadvantaged MPS students in 4th grade but somewhat higher than their MPS peers in 8th grade (p. 13).

So with such consistently bad test score news coming down the pike for these perennial reformers and corporate solutionists, there is only thing left to do, it seems: as did New Jersey’s Education Commissioner noted above, one need simply to announce that test scores no longer matter. Which is what happened on May 5, as the New York Times published an op-ed by racialist charter advocate and co-author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, who now declares that the real reason that parents should advocate for charters and vouchers should have nothing to do with test scores anymore, test scores that are made irrelevant by the facts based on factors beyond the school—and, no, he’s not talking about poverty:

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

So, then, if the good voucher schools of Milwaukee or the good charter schools of the U.S. are made bad by “cognitive ability, personality, and motivation [that] come mostly from home,” then it is not the fault of the good voucher and charter schools, which remain good, according to Murray, even as we stock them with urban students of defective cognitive ability, personality, and motivation. Apparently it is not the fault of perfectly good medicine that the unresponsive patients remain ill. (Note that the terms “poor” or “poverty” are unmentioned in the Murray op-ed).

The real reason for parents to choose charter schools, Murray argues, is that they offer a choice of “highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline.” Aside from the total compliance “structure and discipline” that would make the “best” urban charters entirely unacceptable to middle class parents in the leafy suburbs, the kind of curriculum-rich charter school that Murray describes is even harder to find in poor neighborhoods than the 17 percent of charters that simply do a better job at raising student test scores. In writing off test scores as the rationale for another generation of corporate education reforms, could it be that the perpetual reformers finally have revealed a darker agenda for the imposition of school “choice,” one that rips away in one final swipe any remaining pretense to common sense and common decency?

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