Test scores can be poor measures of school performance

Test scores can be poor measures of school performance, asserts W. James Popham, UCLA Graduate School of Education. Writing about No Child Left Behind (NCLB) assessments in a recent issue of Educational Leadership, Popham claims that many schools labeled “low-performing” are actually doing a good instructional job, and that many schools identified as “high-performing” are actually doing a bad instructional job.

Students in both types of schools can be harmed by these inaccurate assessments. Some suburban schools serving upper-middle-class students, who arrive at school educationally advantaged, can do a poor instructional job and their students will still score reasonably well on the NCLB tests. These students are being underserved despite their scores.

Conversely, students from poor and minority areas can have good instruction and make steady progress, but not look good on these tests. Popham believes that tests like the NCLB are instructionally insensitive — unable to detect improved instruction in a school.

Current NCLB tests are much too closely correlated with students’ socioeconomic status (SES). As a result, a school’s NCLB-based evaluation depends less on the quality of instruction that the school provides than it does on the demographic makeup of the student body.

There are many complaints about schools labeled “low-performing” but little concern about schools inaccurately labeled “high-performing.” Yet such schools do a disservice to their students because poor instruction is not identified and corrected. Few parents of children in high-SES suburban schools know the caliber of their children’s instruction. In Popham’s view, these inappropriately chosen NCLB accountability tests lead to both types of school-evaluation mistakes and ultimately harm students.

“Swords With Blunt Edges,” Educational Leadership, Volume 62, Number 4, December 2004/January 2005, pp. 86-87.

Published in ERN February 2005 Volume 18 Number 2


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