Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Standardized Testing Meets the Web

Today I ran a Google search for the school where my dad teaches 3rd grade.  The 2nd result (after the school district's official school webpage) was a school profile on the GreatSchools.org website, a nonprofit whose mission is "to inspire and guide parents to become effective champions of their children's education."  There also were results from several GreatSchools competitors, including Trulia.com, Schools-Data.com, Schooltree.org, and Education.com.

My hometown of Merced, CA is one of the poorest in California, and my dad's school serves a population that is roughly representative of its district as a whole.  So when I opened the GreatSchools webpage it was no surprise to see a score of just 4 out of 10 based on his school's state test results.  To put this in the local context, only four out of 19 public elementary schools in Merced rated above a 5 out of 10, so a 4 is normal--and probably deserves congratulation.  But something about this webpage still seemed deceptive.

One problem is the webpage's visual cues.  The rating number is featured at the top-left of the school's profile page, and it appears more significant than the Yelp-style "Community Rating" (5 out of 5 stars) which sits below it.  What's more, the GreatSchools rating is formatted to look like a seal (i.e. a seal of approval, which seems to confer official status).

Placing emphasis on state test results, of course, is nothing novel.  The government does this through No Child Left Behind's carrots-and-sticks approach (which I also find problematic, incidentally).  But that practice notwithstanding, I'm concerned that emphasizing test scores online may be an impoverished if not harmful approach to GreatSchools' stated mission.

GreatSchools is serving a population of parents--mostly Generation X parents--who are incredibly demanding.  One theory holds that as the most neglected generation in American history (during their own childhoods), they are driven to the opposite extreme when rearing their own children: demanding special treatment and unprecedented oversight over their children's education.  So they will--at the very least--do a background check on the schools where they're sending their kids.  And they will most likely go online as a first step.

When they do, they'll be confronted with a number, based on test scores, that seems to tell them at least a piece of what they need to know to make the right school choices for their kids.  They may not trust that number completely, but chances are they'll be influenced to weight it more heavily in their decision-making.  Many will go the extra mile to look into other factors, but a "4 out of 10" will still hover in the back of any parent's head if that's the first impression she receives.

The government, under No Child Left Behind, at least has the sense to base its rewards and punishments on schools' Annual Yearly Progress; but when parents vote with their feet, it will be with an eye not on rates of improvement but on comparative performance looking at other schools in the state.  And they will get that information from websites like GreatSchools.

As the only economically advanced nation that primarily judges school performance via multiple-choice tests, I think we need to look closely at what we're creating, and take seriously the range of issues associated with "teaching to the test".  One particularly disturbing problem confronts me every time I come home and talk to my parents and their friends about their work: they are being systematically deprived of their sense of autonomy.  And the education they are being forced to deliver--like the one now being delivered to most low-income students in high-pressure test-focused states--is becoming less and less meaningful, even as test scores rise.

I think there is a better way.  We can keep our commitment to accountability by putting trained judges in schools, and develop an assessment system that values everything in a school that is worth valuing, including social/emotional development, creativity, the ability to express ideas and other higher-order skills.  We can serve poor kids a quality education by valuing what teachers do best.  And I think websites like GreatSchools--in partnership with governments and foundations--should lead the way.

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