Monday, January 16, 2012

Using test scores to pick a school

Using standardized test scores to pick a school for your children to attend is the equivalent of kicking the tires before buying a car.

To fully grasp why this is true, there's a lot to know about the arcane underpinnings of standardized tests; however, there is a single principle that summarizes what you need to know:
Never treat a test score as a synonym for what children have learned or what teachers have taught.
 Again, this too can be true for lots of reasons, but there is a single principle that summarizes what you need to know:
A right answer on a test does not necessarily indicate understanding and a wrong answer does not necessarily indicate a lack of understanding.
Show me someone who places high stakes on one single test, and I'll show you someone who does not understand how testing is unavoidably incomplete and inherently prone to error.


  1. "A right answer on a test does not necessarily indicate understanding and a wrong answer does not necessarily indicate a lack of understanding."

    I agree with this statement. I recently had to take a standardized test at the unemployment office. I was doing pretty well until the test started asking what I thought were higher level thinking questions. I looked at the question thought about all of the possible answers. Considered the deeper things that the text I read was trying to say, and picked what I still think was the best answer. I was wrong because the "correct" answer was directly out of the text and you were not supposed to infer anything. I felt like it was not really testing my reading capabilities and how well I could think about what I read, but how well I can look at what I read to find the answer to the test.

  2. At school we had to do a multiple-choice test for reading and listening for the foreign language(s) we were learning. A boy in my French class was renowned for being pretty lazy at school, and sure enough, after the test, he told me that he just shaded random bubbles- some Cs to go with the "just pick C" mentality, some As, some Bs and a few Ds here and there. Another boy copied off him and got a Distinction. The look on everyone's face was priceless.

  3. Joe,

    Standardized tests are the only constant in a world where teachers, schools, parents and students all vary widely. It seems to me that examining these test results as a baseline point for comparison is the only thing that I have (as a parent) to equally compare schools given all of the above variances in the system. It also seems to me that schools tend to stay within about 10% of previous year performance, indicating that there is something there to be trusted as reflective of the general performance of the school to obtain results (or the failure to do so, as the case may be).

    I'm all ears for what alternative you'd have to provide a parent like myself (or the province in general) as a superior way to measure the success of teachers to teach, students to truly learn (and become effective life-long learners) and for schools to create a positive learning environment.

    Carsen Campbell

  4. Carson,

    I have a response to your question but before I do, I have a question. As a parent, what are you using the test score data for?

    1. My first paragraph indicates what I use the scores for: detecting how a school is performing in relation to its peers and as an indicator of change should scores change by more than 10% year-over-year.

  5. Show me the tax returns & education levels of the student body for a school & I will tell you how tell you how well or poorly they will score on the tests.

    I am not just concerned with what is on these tests but also with what can never be on the tests. These tests can never measure creativity, innovation, ingenuity, perseverance, humility, humanity, humor, empathy... And the list goes on. Essentially these tests measure what matters least.

    It's not that the scores tell us nothing, it's that they don't tell us what we think they tells us.

    Also, most of these tests are norm-referenced, that is they are not a measure of excellence, rather they are an instrument for ranking and sorting in a way that limits success for an arbitrary few. Even the most hardened psychomatricians admit that these tests were never designed to measure the quality of a school or teacher and there certainly has never been a test designed to measure life long learning. To use standardized tests in this way would be like using a teaspoon to measure temperature.

    Campbell's Law also tells us that the higher the stakes placed on a measurement the higher the odds that that indicator will be gamed this compromising its validity and reliability. And if you know anything about testing then you know how important validity is. The moment ANY kind of test preparation is done a test's validity is thrown out the window. And a test without validity is a test that has lost all of its purpose.

    If you want to compare the different learning opportunities that each school offers their children, there is only one sure way to do this and that is to actually visit the schools & observe what actually goes on. Looking at a spread sheet of test scores isn't the best way to reflect on our schools -- it's just the easiest & most convenient.

    If you really want to know the way forward for best assessing our schools I suggest you read The School's Our Children Deserve and The Myths of Standardized Testing.

    You could also read these:


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