School test scores don’t tell full story

Deborah Jones, Big Park Community School Principal

Deborah Jones, Big Park Community School Principal

The Arizona Board of Education, in an attempt to improve school achievement, has re-implemented grading of all of the schools in Arizona.

The formula is complex and takes a degree in statistical analysis to understand, but the bottom line is all about test scores at the elementary level.

It is a bell curve formula that places schools into each category based on cut scores. Ninety percent of the criteria for a school’s “grade” are the results of the AZ Merit test. The other 10 percent is based on attendance and improvement of students who are at risk of low achievement.

The AZ Merit test is a snapshot in time of how a child is doing on a given day, if that child tests well. The test is much more difficult than the old AIMS tests used to be. The test is administered on-line, requiring children to type proficient paragraphs in response to literary passages and solve mathematical problems, demonstrating and explaining their processes in writing. It is a rigorous and challenging test for all children. Some perform quite well on the test; others do not, for a variety of reasons.

As some people realize, there is a law of averages at work, such that when some children perform well on an assessment and others do not, the “average” score will be close to the middle. In the state of Arizona that is a grade of “C” on the bell curve.

These scores are used to help determine which schools are “good” schools in the eye of those who govern and, often, in the eye of the public.

They do not take into account the numbers of students with special educational needs, learning a second language or living in poverty. 45% of the students at Big Park fit into one of these categories. The “grade” that a school receives is a better indicator of the socio-economic status of a school than the achievement of the individuals in that school.

A better measure is to look at the growth of individuals who experience good instruction in a caring atmosphere over time. At Big Park there is a focus on the children, their well-being and well-rounded educational experience, in addition to their academics.

Assessments are not a bad thing. They are a fact of life in education. When they are used appropriately to guide instruction, identify strengths and areas for growth, and also address the needs of students, they can be a valuable tool.

The results should be used to refine the educational programs, support children and educators, and not to “grade” a school or pit schools against each other fighting for resources.

At Big Park School, we are aware of our areas of educational need and are always working to improve. I will address some of the ways in our next column. Our scores averaged out to a “C” grade this past school year (average in the state of AZ).

We do not consider our school average in any way. We are anticipating increased achievement and better scores over the next years. A school is however, much more than a score.

A school is a place where children come to learn, grow, think, achieve, fail, reflect, get back up and try again. We are creating life-long learners with a growth mindset, who know that our brains are much like muscles -- the more we work them and challenge them, the smarter we become.

A novel idea might be for the state of Arizona to support it's schools and educators who work hard every day to educate the children and instill a love of learning. A school is so much more than a single “grade.”

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