Do Parents Care About Test Scores?

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

To test, or not to test? That is the question at the center of one of Matt Barnum’s latest and last articles at The 74 (he’s moving over to Chalkbeat). Taking opposite sides of the “testing and educational choice” question are Doug Harris and yours truly.

To test:

“If you’re not going to require anything, we’re not going to know anything about whether these programs worked or not,” said Doug Harris, a Tulane University professor who has done extensive research on school choice in New Orleans and has been a critic of DeVos’s approach to education reform. “When you put it that way, even the people who are somewhat supportive of the idea get a little squeamish.”

Not to (impose the state standardized) test:

“Since there is strong evidence that state testing mandates tend to have negative unintended consequences, such as narrowing the curriculum and distorting how schools teach kids, we’d rather that schools have the freedom to use the tests that are more closely aligned to their curriculum and give parents the freedom to choose the schools that work best for their kids,” said Jason Bedrick, of EdChoice, an Indianapolis-based group that backs voucher and tax credit programs. [links added]

… Bedrick, of EdChoice, says he’s fine with requiring schools to administer a national test, but not the state exam, even if it means that studying the program then becomes difficult.

“As researchers, we’d like the apples-to-apples comparisons that a single test provides,” he wrote in an email. “However, as policymakers, we also have to do what’s in the best interests of kids.”

“The main point of choice policies is to empower parents to choose schools based on the criteria that are important to them, not just to raise [specific] test scores,” Bedrick said, citing factors such as student-teacher ratio, curriculum, and college acceptances.

Later in the piece, Barnum cites me saying, “We don’t think it is necessary to impose standardized tests. If parents demand that information, schools will provide it.” Harris disagrees:

“I think that’s hooey … Schools themselves, even if they wanted to provide that kind of information, can’t provide that in a way that’s comparable across schools — you have to have a coordinating mechanism for information.”

If only the market had a coordinating mechanism for information that parents used! Oh right, not only do such mechanisms already exist, but they’re also growing in popularity, and they get far more web traffic than any state education agency website:

GreatSchools.org is not the only website that ranks pre-K-12 schools. The Internet search engines Yelp and Google offer school ratings, as do websites such as Schooldigger.com and Privateschoolreview.com. But with 40 million annual unique visitors, GreatSchools is the one most used, according to Alexa Internet, which tracks Web traffic.

The site’s founder and chief executive officer, Bill Jackson, says GreatSchools wants to be more than just a school ratings site: He sees it developing into an association that serves parents in the same way that the AARP serves retirees, or that AAA represents drivers.

Perfect information? Of course not. Lots of room for improvement? Absolutely. But they already do more than any state agency to empower parents with the info they want.

And “want” is the key word there. EdChoice’s More Than Scores survey of parents of tax-scholarship students in Georgia found that most parents do *not* place a very high value on test scores:

Student performance on standardized test scores is one of the least important pieces of information upon which parents base their decision regarding the private school to which they send their children. Only 10.2 percent of the parents who completed the survey listed higher standardized test scores as one of their top five reasons why they chose a particular private school for their child.

Just ask real parents, such as, well… Doug Harris:

Research, including Harris’s, suggests that parents do generally place significant value on a school’s test scores, but it may not be the biggest factor driving school preferences.

As a parent himself considering private schools, Harris says he’s never asked any of them for their test scores. [emphasis added]

“Most of these decisions, and this is true public, private, or otherwise, are based more on reputation, on what your neighbors say,” he said.

Tests can be informative for parents, but policymakers should dial back their obsession. After all, they measure only a thin slice of what we want schools to provide. Parents take a more holistic view of their child’s education, and the narrow focus on tested subject can have negative unintended consequences. For example, one researcher recently acknowledged that one reason there “hasn’t been as much actual innovation [in the charter school sector] as maybe the original charter folks hoped” is that test-based accountability is hampering innovation:

[W]hen you have intense test-based accountability it really restricts what you can do and to what degree you can innovate because you have to put so many of your resources towards the same end. There are only so many ways to make test scores go up. So, I think that really restricts what they can do.”

That researcher? Doug Harris.

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4 Responses to Do Parents Care About Test Scores?

  1. Michael J. Norton says:

    Of course parents pay attention to Test Scores. But give parents credit. Just the same way we care what our Blood Pressure might be each day, we also recognize that it is only one metric in a comlex analysis that can’t be answered simply.

    Are my children progressing at a pace that I believe matches their abilities?

    Are my children developing critical skills associated with a rapidly changing economy?

    Are my children developing critical thinking and creative solutions skills?

    Are my children exposed to enriching curriculum including arts, languages, public speaking, creative writing?

    We process all of those concepts and a lot more far more effectively than media and many educators would like to credit us.

    But – if we fear that our kids are falling behind, we will turn to test scores to validate.

  2. Greg Forster says:

    How about a deal. Parents and schools can do what’s right for kids, and in return, the technocrats get 1,000 children to raise in a lab and perform experiments on. That’s how they treat kids now anyway, and it would keep them busy for a generation while the rest of us get busy with education.

    Or is this one of those Nuke the Moon things that we’re not allowed to do because our morally superior religion forbids it?

  3. Ann in L.A. says:

    For younger kids, the tests aren’t really testing them, but testing the school. You can have a school and teachers telling a parent that their kid is doing great and has straight A’s, but you can’t tell whether the school’s curriculum and teaching is actually effective until you get an outside opinion. Standardized tests are one way that parents can get that second opinion.

    The private school our kids went to is a case in point. They do not publish their test scores, but several years ago, they must have been really bad. After the test results came back, the teachers got the third graders together–8 and 9 year olds–and berated the *students* for having done so poorly. I don’t know whether the K-3 teachers were berated by anyone for having failed so miserably at *teaching*. We have a friend that pulled their kid out of the school that day.

  4. Tim says:

    Greatschools gets vastly more traffic than SED websites because of Google. Its school ratings are derived mostly from–you guessed it–demographically adjusted state test and growth scores (http://www.greatschools.org/catalog/pdf/New_Ratings_Methodology_Report.pdf), and I’m guessing the main reason parents visit Greatschools is to look up basic student demographic information.The parent reviews tend to be short and fall into two distinct camps–uncritical cheerleader (more on them in a bit) and bitter malcontent. Greatschools deserves credit for conveniently packaging information that is scattered across SED sites, but it does indeed have a long way to go.

    Diane Ravitch convinced me that nothing will do until every child is ensonced in a school as well-resourced, progressive, and holistic about assessment as places like Sidwell Friends or the UC Lab School. So I was surprised to find that almost all of the fancy elite private schools choose to administer some type of fill-in-the-bubble nationally normed standardized test at least once in elementary and then middle school. Some even do this every year between grades 3-8. This is not for admission, mind you, this is for enrolled students.

    Why might this be happening? All schools, even the really fancy ones, are basically closed ecosystems that have big incentives to tell you that they’re doing great, and some pretty big downsides to looking critically at themselves. Given the connection between schooling and housing, the idea that you can vote with your feet gets pretty complicated (this is what accounts for the cheerleaders). Changing schools, which even in ideal circumstances carries a penalty for the kids, is a lot more involved than switching cell phone providers.

    The upshot is that testing provides a third-party reality check on what your eyes, your gut, your peers, your home value/tuition bill, and all the other observations are telling you. I do agree that the narrowing of curriculum and test prep are potential concerns, but I’m not sure there is a substitute for test scores that I’d feel comfortable with (look at the gap between graduation rates and college readiness rates to understand my concerns).

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