What Do Standardized Test Scores Really Measure? David Berliner Explains

David Berliner has been teaching about education policy and writing books on education and school psychology for decades. The best known for readers outside colleges of education are The Manufactured Crisis and 50 Myths and Lies that Threaten America’s Public Schools. Yesterday in a pithy column published by Valerie Strauss in the Washington Post, Berliner explains why none of our current strategies for school reform will work. Not corporate school reform. Not test and punish accountability. Not blaming school teachers. Not charter school and voucher strategies that allow some promising students to escape public schools—the plans favored by Donald Trump and Betsy DeVos. Berliner’s analysis is definitive. He demonstrates that our society has been on the wrong path for decades.

The test scores by which our society now judges schools don’t really measure the quality of schools: “As income increases per family from our poorest families (under the 25th percentile in wealth), to working class (26th-50th percentile in family wealth), to middle class (51st to 75th percentile in family wealth), to wealthy (the highest quartile in family wealth), mean scores go up quite substantially. In every standardized achievement test whose scores we use to judge the quality of the education received by our children, family income strongly and significantly influences the mean scores obtained.”  Berliner continues: “Similarly, as the families served by a school increase in wealth from the lowest quartile in family wealth to the highest quartile in family wealth, the mean score of all the students at those schools goes up quite substantially. Thus, characteristics of the cohort attending a school strongly influence the scores obtained by the students at that school.”

Berliner adds that, while critics of public education complain about overall U.S. scores on international tests, our wealthiest students do as well as the highest scoring students in the world: “We learn that in the United States, wealthy children attending public schools that serve the wealthy are competitive with any nation in the world. Since that is the case, why would anyone think our public schools are failing? When compared with other nations, some of our students and some of our public schools are not doing well. But having ‘some’ failures is quite a different claim than one indicting our entire public school system.”

So, what is the real problem according to David Berliner? “(P)roblems of poverty influence education and are magnified by housing policies that foster segregation. Over the years, in many communities, wealthier citizens and government policies have managed to consign low-income students to something akin to a lower caste. The wealthy have cordoned off their wealth. They hide behind school district boundaries that they often draw themselves, and when they do, they proudly use a phrase we all applaud, ‘local control!’ The result, by design, is schools segregated by social class, and that also means segregation by race and ethnicity. We have created an apartheid-lite, separate and unequal, system of education.”

Berliner is not so naive as to believe it will be quick and easy to ameliorate housing segregation by income, race and ethnicity. He suggests changes within the schools that might help, at the same time acknowledging he is describing very expensive investments: “High-quality early childhood experiences; summer school to address summer loss; parent education programs to build skills needed in school; parent housing vouchers to reduce mobility (due to evictions and homelessness); after school programs such as sports, chess clubs, and robotics; a full array of AP courses; school counselors and school nurses at the ratios their professions recommend; professional development for teachers and establishment of school cultures of professionalism; pay for teachers at parity with what others at similar educational levels receive; and so forth.  Of course, this will all cost money.”

In his analysis Berliner does not go so far as to examine what is wrong with the so called “cures” being prescribed today based on the test scores he believes are a faulty measure of school quality. A couple of these practices are particularly poisonous.

The first is the practice by states of issuing statewide report cards that assign “A-F” letter grades to schools and school districts based primarily on standardized test scores. Today over 15 states assign letter grades for schools and school districts.  Jeb Bush’s  Foundation for Excellence in Education (where Betsy DeVos served on the board) promotes this practice and even has a model bill to establish such a program, The Accountability and Transparency Act, that can be introduced in any state legislature. In states that grade their schools with letter grades, not surprisingly school districts that serve exclusive communities of wealthy children tend to post “A” grades while schools in poor communities earn “F” grades. But the practice is not neutral in its consequences.  When states assign letter grades to schools and school districts, the states themselves are negatively branding schools and districts that serve concentrations of children living in poverty. States are essentially redlining school districts in cities and inner-ring suburbs while incentivizing parents to choose the homogeneous, wealthy, so-called “excellent” (A-rated) school districts in outer-ring suburbs. The letter grades drive housing segregation by both family income and race.

The second pernicious practice was embodied in the turnaround plans prescribed in the No Child Left Behind law and later in the School Improvement Grant program of the Obama administration. These programs targeted the lowest scoring 5 percent of schools for radical turnarounds—replacing staff, charterizing the school, or, worse, closing the school. We’ll have to wait to see if this practice continues under the Every Student Succeeds Act and the Trump administration. The 2015 Dyett Hunger Strike in Chicago called attention to the damage wrought when schools in the poorest neighborhoods are closed. Not only do students from the neighborhoods where schools are closed have to travel to more distant schools—often on public transportation and sometimes through dangerous areas, but also the poorest neighborhoods are too frequently left without an elementary school or a high school, essential institutions for anchoring a neighborhood or a community.

The punitive “school reform” practices of the past two decades (based on judging schools by their students’ aggregate test scores)  never affect wealthy areas where students post higher scores. They have been a failed “school reform” experiment on schools and communities where children are poor.  They are yet another burden dropped on our poorest citizens and their children. In his commentary this week, David Berliner presents conclusive evidence that we are blaming public schools for test scores that are instead strongly influenced by family and neighborhood economics.  Please read Berliner’s article.

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3 thoughts on “What Do Standardized Test Scores Really Measure? David Berliner Explains

  1. While Berliner’s suggestions to help the public schools are good ones, I would go even farther.
    I would suggest that this country needs to make a commitment to begin to ameliorate the profound effects of poverty and income inequality. Of course, that would cost even more money, so it probably won’t happen in my lifetime, at least. 😟

  2. Pingback: “Something Is Happening and You Don’t Know What It Is…” | janresseger

  3. Pingback: How the Nation’s Two Oldest School Voucher Programs Are Working: Part II—Ohio | janresseger

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