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Posted at 11:43 AM ET, 05/13/2010

When test scores no longer matter

By Valerie Strauss

My guest is Jim Horn, who teaches at Cambridge College in Cambridge, Mass., and is a contributor to the Schools Matter blogpost.

By Jim Horn
When standardized test scores these days don’t conform to the demands of the official political playbook written by the bold reformers, as they like to be known, those test scores may be summarily denounced in the press as meaningless.

Yesterday, for example, New Jersey’s Education Commissioner Bret Schundler, who is leading an effort to remake the state’s public schools in the corporate image, denounced New Jersey Public Schools as a “wretched system” and the state’s #1 national rankings on the NAEP in both 4th and 8th grade reading and math as “irrelevant.” So if the facts don’t support the desired reforms anymore, those facts no longer matter.

A couple of other prominent examples of this phenomenon are worth noting.

After years of increasingly caustic applications of the same test and punish measures and market solutions favored by the perpetual education reform machine that got rolling in the 1980s, the latest research findings on these privatizing schemes now show little to no reason to continue advancing either vouchers or charters as policy solutions to low test scores in high-poverty schools.

The CREDO National Charter School Study by Margaret Raymond and her colleagues at Stanford last June showed that twice as many charters nationwide have worse scores (37%) than those with higher scores (17%), when compared to public schools with similar demographics. Forty-six percent of charters showed no significant difference in test scores when compared to the public schools.

Now name me a drug that would ever be approved by the FDA with those kinds of results for patients in need of relief.

But these charter and voucher pills, just like the teacher performance pay potion we are now being asked to swallow, were pre-approved before any experiments were even conducted. You might it is the bold reformers who remain doubly blind and reckless.

And just last month, another bout of bad news, this time for voucher advocates, arrived in the form of The Comprehensive Longitudinal Evaluation of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program: Summary of Third Year Reports. An ongoing project funded primarily by conservative foundations and headed by privatization advocates, Patrick Wolf, Jay Greene, and John Witte, this longitudinal study of the Milwaukee voucher experiment found, as it did last year and the year before that

Consistent with the results reported in previous years, the subset of students in the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program that took the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examinations scored somewhat lower than income-disadvantaged MPS students in 4th grade but somewhat higher than their Milwaukee Public School system peers in 8th grade (p. 13).

So with such consistently bad test score news coming down the pike for these perennial reformers and corporate solutionists, there is only thing left to do, it seems: Simply announce that test scores no longer matter

Which is what happened on May 5, as The New York Times published an op-ed by charter advocate and co-author of The Bell Curve, Charles Murray, who now declares that the real reason that parents should advocate for charters and vouchers should have nothing to do with test scores anymore, test scores that are made irrelevant by the facts based on factors beyond the school—and, no, he’s not talking about poverty:

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

So, then, if the good voucher schools of Milwaukee or the good charter schools of the United States are made bad by “cognitive ability, personality, and motivation [that] come mostly from home,” then it is not the fault of the good voucher and charter schools, which remain good, according to Murray, even as we stock them with urban students of defective cognitive ability, personality, and motivation.

Apparently it is not the fault of perfectly good medicine that the unresponsive patients remain ill. (Note that the terms “poor” or “poverty” are unmentioned in the Murray op-ed).

The real reason for parents to choose charter schools, Murray argues, is that they offer a choice of “highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline.”

Aside from the total compliance “structure and discipline” that would make the “best” urban charters entirely unacceptable to middle class parents in the leafy suburbs, the kind of curriculum-rich charter school in poor neighborhoods that Murray describes is even harder to find than the 17 percent of charters that simply do a better job at raising student test scores.

In finally writing off test scores as the rationale for another generation of corporate education reforms, could it be that the perpetual reformers have revealed a darker agenda for the imposition of school “choice,” one that rips away finally any remaining pretense to common sense and common decency in a single swipe?

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By Valerie Strauss  | May 13, 2010; 11:43 AM ET
Categories:  Charter schools, Guest Bloggers  | Tags:  charles murray, charter schools, guest bloggers, jim horn, studies on charter schools  
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Next: When adults hit kids at school


About ten or twelve years ago, a colleague explained a conspiracy theory claiming that private business interests were trying to eliminate the nation's system of public schools so that all the tax money could go into corporate pockets via a system of commercial schools. I thought he was totally nuts. Now I know he was prescient.

The business people involved absolutely do not care about anything related to good education and have no interest in finding out. They will say anything and twist information in any way to serve their financial interests. The testing and textbook industry served to get their collective foot in the door to get ahold of tax money that goes to education. The big prize is in owning entire schools.

Their fake concern for children is an attempt to hide the goal of looting education funding. The veneer is wearing thinner and thinner.

Posted by: aed3 | May 13, 2010 1:06 PM | Report abuse

So Charles Murray likes IQ tests, but not NCLB tests.

Posted by: edlharris | May 13, 2010 1:11 PM | Report abuse

Politicians such as Jeb Bush in Florida are pushing for charter schools, the reason, money for themselves, and cronies. He's already,along with his family, made millions off his educational program software companies and text book companies. This is a great scam to line their own pockets. They are masters at turning taxpayer dollars into personal profit, chanting "for the children"!

Posted by: roosboys | May 13, 2010 2:21 PM | Report abuse

Thanks, Valerie. I've been following Horn for over two years on Schools Matter. He is a very keen observer who is astutely aware of what is going on. I am so very grateful that you are giving him a wider audience.

Posted by: pondoora | May 13, 2010 7:33 PM | Report abuse

The question of how to gauge student performance is the real subject here. No one that I know in the charter school arena objects to tests - they conduct plenty of them. However, the essential difference is that students who enter a charter school several grade levels behind cannot be expected to catch up to grade level after only one year in a charter school. You can't hold that school accountable for this time the student was in another school. Therefore, same student learning gains should be used to evaluate performance. The SAT-10 can be used to measure academic status prior to fall admission and then again at the end of the school year. If the child reaches one year of learning gains, he is now on the right path to catch up. Many students may gain more than a year, but still be below grade level. At the Bellweather launch yesterday, a speaker raised a valid question about how to measure performance of a 16 year old who is reading on a third grade level? NCLB isn't the answer. Learnings gains are.

Posted by: sunshine71 | May 14, 2010 1:50 PM | Report abuse

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