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Alan Singer: Do Test Scores Measure “Success”?

Sep 19, 2017 by

An Interview with Alan Singer: Do Test Scores Measure “Success”?

by Michael F. Shaughnessy –

1) First of all, let’s get right to the point, and then we will discuss all of the tangential issues. In you mind, in any school in America, do test scores measure success?

This is not an easy question to answer because there are a number of sub-questions about validity and reliability subsumed within the scope of the broader question. What is meant by “success”? Do all people mean the same thing by “success”? How do you measure “success”? Can a test score measure the future success a student will have in school or life?

These are not new questions. The poem Richard Cory (1897) by Edward Arlington Robinson, immortalized for my generation by Simon and Garfunkel, is the sad tale of a very successful man. Richard Cory “was rich—yes, richer than a king—And admirably schooled in every grace: In fine, we thought that he was everything, to make us wish that we were in his place.” But “Richard Cory, one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head.”

The link between a child’s socio-economic status (SES), the academic and economic status of parents, school achievement, and test scores, is well documented. Grant Wiggins found that SAT scores “go up in perfect tandem with $20,000-dollar family income amounts.” If test scores measure “success,” maybe we might save a lot of money and time and stop testing. We could just promote students, grant awards, and assign slots in college based on parental income.

There are always examples of children from economically challenged backgrounds, communities, and schools, that have talents that enable them to outperform expectations in school and life. There are also always examples of children with special talent that fail to succeed because of social conditions or personal issues. But exceptional cases explain little about how a society or school system operates. A paper delivered to a 2014 meting of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston detailed the lack of social mobility in the United States. Researchers found that about one-in-six rich high school dropouts remain in the top 20% economically no matter how badly they act, about the same number as poor college graduate stay stuck in the bottom 20%.

In a recent Huffington Post blog I challenged claims by the Success Academy Charter School Network that student scores on last spring’s high-stakes Common Core aligned tests proved the “success” of the Success model. Their model involves selective recruiting, constant test prep, oppressive discipline, and pushing out children with special academic needs or behavioral issues. I argued that “success at Success demonstrates the illegitimacy of the entire national high-stakes testing regime” and called on New York State education officials to investigate how the schools operate. “If they do magic, they deserve credit. If it is a smoke and mirrors show that produces test scores through selective recruitment and the intimidation of children and families, it should be shut down.”

It is a long way around, but my answer to your initial question, “In any school in America, do test scores measure success?” is “NO.” The tests generally either measure the socio-economic status of the students who attend the school or efforts by a school to manipulate the system to boost test scores.

2) Alan, you and I both know, some kids enter school ready to learn, and well prepared. Others, perhaps growing up in poverty, are not so lucky. Should we or even could we have different definitions of success for the lower classes, middle classes and upper classes?

George W. Bush called this the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” His solution was to test everybody, change nothing, and pretend that no child would be left behind. Social inequality is a broader problem that schools are ill-equipped to address. I fear a stiffening caste system in the United States as income inequality intensifies, neighborhoods become more isolated, schools remain segregated, and productive work itself increasingly disappears. Accepting different definitions of success based on social class seems to me to justify social inequality, something I cannot accept.

I argue that to maintain an open society essential for democracy and improve the school performance of poor and minority youth the United States needs to make a massive direct investment in improving the lives of it people. Donald Trump claims that a tax cut for the richest Americans will somehow produce new higher paying jobs for the rest of the country. This kind of magic may work at Hogwarts, but conservative and liberal economists who study the world we actually live in are highly skeptical that a Trump tax cut will do anything but further enrich the already rich.

3) Some private schools can be successful – since they are extremely highly selective of which students they accept. Is their “success” over-rated or inflated?

This is not just the case for private schools. There are very selective public schools for “gifted” children across the United States that admit high-performing students from lower income and minority groups. I come from a working-class low income family in the Bronx. In junior high school I took a test that got me admitted to the Bronx High School of Science, probably the premier public high school of its era. I wasn’t a very disciplined student so my performance there was decidedly mediocre. I hated being there and felt the school was really operated for the benefit of the one hundred or so students whose parents where doctors, lawyers, and college professors. If I remember correctly, I graduated something like 585th out of a graduating class of about 850. I did better in college and graduate school earning honors and a PHD and I have had a relatively successful career as a teacher, college professor, writer, and political activist. Does a high school that basically ignored my existence deserve credit for my “achievements,” or were they achieved despite the school? One thing is clear, if you only admit high achieving students including students from economically disadvantaged families or minority groups, some of them are going to succeed (whatever your definition of success).

4) Let’s take extremes – success in beautiful Hawaii, and success in Juneau, Alaska. Different environments for sure? Should we be using those same standardized tests?

Or any standardized tests? It depends what the tests are used for. Are they used to fail students, teachers, and schools, or to target investment in the areas they are needed the most?

Students across the country, whether they are from Hawaii, Alaska, or Detroit, will need to live and work in a highly technical society that places a premium on knowledge and understanding. There needs to be measures of how well schools are preparing students for that world so adjustments can be made. Given recent accusations of “fake news,” claims of “alt-truth,” and the rejection of science by some of the highest ranking elected officials in the United States, the survival of democracy, maybe even civilization as we know it, will depend on preparing young people how to think critically, evaluate evidence, formulate opinions, and become active citizens. I fear if we drop all testing, rightwing Republican party controlled low cost states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Oklahoma, and Arizona will be able to abandon the pretense that they educate all students and defund already collapsing public school systems.

By the way, many people find Alaska beautiful.

5) Now, some more extremes – Scarsdale, New York, and the South Bronx. How the heck can the Department of Education in New York realistically expect “equal success” in these two environments?

The promise of “equal success” through testing is a pretense that allows for the failure to address continued social inequality. Every kid that does well, every charter school that boosts test scores, every block that is gentrified while former residents are displaced into homelessness, is used as evidence that the system works. Jennifer Lopez is from the Castle Hill neighborhood of the South Bronx and she is very rich.

6) Some kids, simply due to high I.Q., are going to be successful no matter what transpires in school. Are they being “successful” or are they just simply using their brains, memories, and prior knowledge?

Again, it depends how we define success. Some of the most notorious serial killers had an unusually high I.Q., including Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, Jeffrey Dahmer, and Ted Bundy.

The website Business Insider has a list of fifteen billionaires who started out “dirt poor,” including George Soros and Oprah Winfrey. How many millions of “dirt poor” with the potential to succeed in life instead end up on drugs, incarcerated, or just stay “dirt poor”? Over 50,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2015. Over 2.2 million adults were incarcerated in U.S. federal and state prisons, and county jails in 2013. In 2011, 1.5 households in the United States, including 2.8 million children, lived in extreme poverty on less than $2 per day before adding in government benefits. In 2012, one-in-six senior citizens and almost one-in-five children in the United States lived in poverty.

7) Let’s face it – some people are just good P.R. artists – they are going to say that they are “deliriously happy” and “jumping for joy,” at their perhaps very mediocre test scores at their private or charter school. What’s a parent or taxpayer to do?

Politicians make all sorts of claims to get elected and reelected. Incumbents like New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio proclaim incremental change in test scores as earth-shaking news. Politicians running against public schools who are taking charter school money like New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo take very opportunity to build up the charters and put down public schools.

I prefer to refer to people as citizens rather than as taxpayers. Taxpayers demand fiscal responsibility from institutions so they can as individuals pay lower taxes. Citizens demand accountability from institutions at whatever the cost so that our society can continue to grow. Parents are in a bind. Given the nature of our society and conditions in some public school systems, even parents committed to public education have to make personal decisions that will provide the most benefit for their own children, whether that means enrolling them in public, charter, private, religious, or select gifted schools. As a citizen and as an educator, at the same time that I fight for social investment and improvement in public education, I recognize the right of parents to make these individual decisions. I look forward to a time and a nation when public schools provide quality education for all children.

8) It is sad, but some schools do not get recognized for the very fine citizens they produce, and the number of students that go on to graduate school, law school, dental school or even medical school. Are we measuring all the wrong stuff? Or do we need to make sure that everyone can read, write, spell and do math? Some of the tests don’t even measure writing well at that.

You know this is a rhetorical question. I worked in and continue to work with some very difficult inner-city high schools. At each of these schools I knew teachers who invested heavily in the education and the future of their students – and many of their students went on to do well in college and in careers. I have a friend, a social studies teacher in the South Bronx, Pablo Muriel, who was a former teacher education student at Hofstra University. Pablo grew up in the same South Bronx community where he now teaches, coincidently, the same community where I grew up thirty years earlier. Pablo is researching and writing a doctoral dissertation focusing on six of his former students who have been “successful.” His goal is to discover the specific conditions that motivated these young people to invest in education. While they were his students they were all involved in political action projects. He chose them because after graduating from high school they continued their social activism, many becoming teachers. These young people have the “right stuff” and we have to find a way to measure and bottle it for widespread use.

9) What have I neglected to ask?

I invite readers to follow me on Huffington Post and twitter. I hope to meet people as well at marches and conferences demanding that the United States address social inequality and invest in the education of each and every young person.

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