Why are we so focused on test scores?

Is it fair to classify as “dopes” those parents who choose schools that report poor test performance? Not if we only focus on test performance, which may be a muddy measure of how kids are benefitting, Rick Hess writes. Hess directs readers to a recent paper by several economists who examined the open-enrollment initiative at Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools and found substantive long-term gains. The enrollment plan launched in 2001, yielding, according to the study, higher graduation rates with no cream skimming.

“Among applicants with low-quality neighborhood schools, lottery winners are more likely than lottery losers to graduate from high school, attend a four-year college, and earn a bachelor’s degree,” authors David Deming, Justine Hastings, Thomas Kane and Douglas Staiger conclude. “They are twice as likely to earn a degree from an elite university. The results suggest that school choice can improve students’ longer-term life chances when they gain access to schools that are better on observed dimensions of quality.”

Earlier today on this page, Alan Bonsteel, the president of California Parents for Educational Choice, urged school choice groups to embrace the argument that enhanced levels of school choice can yield higher graduation rates. Similarly, Hess writes:

Maybe parents aren’t dopes. Maybe reading and math scores, at least on today’s assessments, are actually muddy measures of how much kids are benefiting. Maybe parents who express high levels of satisfaction with choice see that their kids are better behaved and more focused, disciplined, and academically engaged. Maybe they judge that this gives their kids a much better shot at a bright future, even if their short-term reading and math scores aren’t moving a lot … 

… Now, let’s be clear. I don’t know that any of this is true. But it seems as viable as the “parents are dopes” hypothesis. Yet school choice researchers have been so focused for two decades on examining whether choice lifts test scores that they’ve not yet spent much time exploring just why it is that parental satisfaction seems to so dramatically exceed the test score evidence. On the bright side that just means there are huge opportunities ahead. So, guys, how about it?

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BY Adam Emerson

Editor of redefinED, policy and communications guru for Florida education nonprofit

One Comment

Doug Tuthill

A few months ago we surveyed a representative sample of our Step Up For Students parents to determine their priorities when choosing schools. Their top priority was school safety, followed by quality of curriculum, quality of teachers and whether a school is faith-based.

We also asked how they judge the academic quality of a school. Of the ten top variables parents listed, a school’s standardized test scores came in tied for seventh place. Their top three indicators of school quality were (1) type of curriculum, (2) experience level of teachers, and (3) amount of individual attention students receive.

Over 98% of our parents said they visit schools prior to choosing them.

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