Learning First Alliance

Strengthening public schools for every child

Proceed with Caution: Using Standardized Test Scores in High-Stakes Decisions

obriena's picture

New York state education officials recently learned that their standardized assessments were not properly measuring student proficiency. They recalibrated the way the tests were graded and, not surprisingly, the new (theoretically more accurate) scores are significantly lower than those previously reported.

In Florida, concern with the accuracy of test scores caused the state department of education to hire independent contractors to examine the results. Several districts believe that individual student gains fell in an unusual manner. The results are not yet in.

Two unrelated instances. But both illustrate the danger of relying heavily on standardized test scores in making high-stakes decisions for students and schools.

In New York, students appeared to have made more progress than they actually had. The schools looked good. But in New York, test scores are used to determine whether students must attend summer school and are promoted to the next grade level. Because of the grading problem, some students were denied services that could have helped them truly master the skills they need to succeed in life.

In Florida, individual student learning gains at certain grade levels fell. That makes schools look bad, which is not good from a PR standpoint. In addition, in Florida test scores are used to determine if a school gets money from the government and if students should be allowed to transfer out of their home school at cost to the district. There have been efforts to strongly tie student performance on these tests to teacher pay and retention decisions (though a recent gubernatorial veto on such legislation has stalled them). If the test scores were inaccurate—and the mistake had not been caught—there could have been disastrous consequences for a number of schools and districts.

It is clearly important to measure if students are learning. And districts, schools and teachers should be held accountable to ensure they make gains. But right now, as we found out in New York and Florida, we cannot be confident that our standardized assessments actually measure student learning or give us the kinds of information we need to develop good policy. So when we talk about policies like merit pay and school performance scores, we have to talk about the tests on which decisions would be based. The quality of those assessments cannot be ignored. We cannot turn a blind eye when budget cuts mean that testing contracts automatically go to the lowest bidder, open response questions hit the cutting room floor and test scoring takes place on a wing and a prayer. The question of our tests’ quality has to be front and center to ensure that we know what is really happening in our public schools.