What Do Standardized Test Scores Really Prove?

by Brian Kalish

Suppose for a moment that they had gotten away with it, that no one had found out. Suppose for a moment that the scores had come in, showing a quantum leap in student achievement without any suspicion of wrongdoing. The assumption would be that Palmer Elementary School, 1900 N. 1st St., had been doing everything right, that they were perhaps the only school in the district that had adequately prepared its students to master the content of the Terra Nova exam. District officials would have lauded the scores as an indication that Milwaukee’s students can buck the recent trend, that urban kids can perform just as well as anyone else in the state on the high stakes assessments. Palmer would have been held up as a beacon of hope in a floundering system. Schools around the district would have been forced to examine how Palmer excelled and would have been expected to emulate its success. That scenario, of course, is just a fantasy. As of this printing, the scope of the Palmer Elementary School test scandal is unclear. The facts are somewhat elusive. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, some teachers at Palmer gave students photocopies of the test to take home and, presumably, study. The principal, as the head of the school, has also been implicated. Make no mistake. Anyone participating in such unethical activity is not above reproach and any disciplinary action sanctioned against those involved is richly deserved. But the firestorm surrounding Palmer brings to light larger issues concerning the much-ballyhooed standardized assessments. Namely that high stakes tests often reveal not how bright a student is, but rather how far some schools are willing to go in order to prepare students for a particular test — and that schools in MPS will do anything in order to score well for fear of reprisal, financial and otherwise, from the state. Even if, as is the case with Palmer, that means breaking the rules. Standardized tests are not evil in and of themselves. They are designed to measure how well a student performs according to the state standards, a laudable goal. A problem arises, however, when test scores are directly tied to crippling sanctions from the district and state. As a result of the No Child Left Behind Act, schools scoring well on the standardized tests will escape the stigma of being listed among the state’s “schools in need of improvement.” Regular folks refer to it as the “failing schools” list. If a school stumbles on the assessments, not only will it appear on the highly publicized list, but it will also have to present parents with the option of transferring their student to another non-failing school. Not to mention the fact that enrollment will most likely sag once word gets around that a school made the list. Lower enrollment means fewer dollars available for already cash-strapped schools. Essentially, low scores translate into less funding. To avoid losing aid, schools pour an inordinate amount of resources into making sure students score as well as possible on the test. To be clear, there is a difference between scoring well and learning. Just ask the teachers at Palmer. But it would be foolish to think that Palmer is the only school scrambling in the weeks before the Terra Nova and WKCE exams to uncover ways to outsmart the test. Because urban children often lag behind grade level in math, reading, and language arts, teachers must prepare students for the test not by focusing on content, but bombarding students with trivial information aimed at maximizing scores: if you are running out of time, fill in as many bubbles as possible. Don’t leave any questions blank. When you don’t know the answer, guess. Don’t spend too much time on one question. The test is attacked on all fronts, every hour of the school day. Practice tests are administered. Writing assignments are timed. If nothing else, the public can rest assured that our students are thoroughly familiar with the intricacies of standardized tests by the time they graduate from MPS. So the real question, the one no politician, taxpayer, or journalist seems to be asking, is what do standardized tests really prove? That students have mastered content? Maybe. But Palmer Elementary’s brash attempt to pad its scores is illustrative of the fact that as long as funding is tied, directly or otherwise, to test scores, schools have little choice but to place their respective eggs in one basket — make sure students test well. The teachers at Palmer took it to an admittedly idiotic level. But it’s hardly a stretch to understand why they might have tried it. Brian Kalish teaches 7th Grade at Milwaukee Public Schools’ Webster Middle School.

Brian Kalish teaches 7th Grade at Milwaukee Public Schools’ Webster Middle School.