If your student — or your child — passes state tests, does that mean he or she is on track for college? Maybe. Maybe not. A terrific piece by Sarah Carr in the New Orleans Times-Picayune raises an issue that is discussed far too infrequently: exactly what does it mean to score on grade level on a standardized test? To what degree is it an indicator of college readiness. Carr’s piece focuses on Louisiana’s statewide tests, but the issue applies nearly everywhere.
“Ten years after the introduction of standardized testing in Louisiana, much about the meaning of exam results remains a mystery to the average parent or guardian. Last week, thousands of students from across the state retook the exams, known as the LEAP or iLEAP in grades three through eight, and the GEE, or Graduate Exit Exam, starting in the 10th grade. But most will measure their success solely by whether they scraped by enough points to advance out of the fourth or eighth grades, or to graduate.
Among low-income, poorly educated parents interpreting test results meaningfully is a particularly egregious problem. If you are not a critical consumer of education yourself, you have every reason to assume that passing a state test means your child is where they ought to be academically. And if your child is demonstrating adequate progress, wouldn’t you assume he or she is on track to one day attend college? It ain’t necessarily so.
According to Carr’s story a study correlated Louisiana students’ GEE performance to ACT scores. Those with an “unsatisfactory” score on the English section of the GEE had an average ACT score of 12. No surprise. Students who scored ”advanced” had an average of 29 on the ACT. Good for them. But here’s the eye-opener: “A middle-of-the-pack designation of “basic” on the GEE translated into an average of 19 on the ACT,” she notes. ”And a basic in math equated to an average score of 18 on the ACT. That means that most of the students scoring basic overall — the state’s definition of performing at grade level — fall just short of qualifying for Louisiana’s scholarship program for four-year universities, known as TOPS Opportunity, which requires a minimum ACT score of 20.”
Translation: Basic is basically not good enough. Carr writes:
Many public schools focus intensely on increasing the number of students scoring at basic since at least one basic score is required to advance at the high-stakes grades. But if they want to prepare their students for college, and help them afford the tuition, schools need to increase the number of students scoring at the “mastery” and “advanced” levels. The advantage of the ACT comparison is that it has real-world consequences in terms of college acceptance and financial aid that parents are more likely to understand than more abstract references to “grade-level” work.
Here is where the race to lower cut scores, dumb-down tests and otherwise create an illusion of proficiency where none exists exacts a terrible toll: for low-SES children in particular it is entirely possible–even likely–for a child to attend school faithfully, do everything that is asked, earn decent grades and pass all standardized tests put before them, yet still graduate years behind their peers who had the good fortune to attend better schools and get a more rigorous education.
Here’s an idea: how about annual report cards that go beyond the overly broad and largely meaningless “below,” “approaching,” “at” or “above” grade level and instead tell parents whether their child is on track to gain admission to a state’s university system–with a place guaranteed to any student who graduates on track? Isn’t that what “data-driven” is all about?