Standardized Test Scores: What Do They Mean?


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High-stakes standardized testing has increased in importance to the extent that it:

  • drives curricula.
  • takes up substantial amounts of in-class time.
  • determines bonuses and funding.

On the surface, standardized testing appears to be an objective way to judge students' academic progress and, by extension, their teachers' ability to teach. Some think this is a good idea. Others, however, believe there are built-in biases to standardized testing that preclude many students from an opportunity to exhibit their knowledge. The weight placed on one measure of growth cannot adequately reflect the advances that many students make in a school year. Informed of the limitations of the Stanford Achievement Test, 9th Edition (SAT9), what do students and teachers think about the Academic Performance Indicator (API) rewards that California has tied to the test results? I decided to find out.

Recently, I sat down with a group of eighth-grade students at Mountain Shadows Middle School in Rohnert Park, CA, to discuss the effects of API rewards. I also spoke with four elementary teachers from four different districts. Although not all of the schools in each district met their state-initiated goals, three of the teachers are at schools that will receive the incentives.

Sliding quality of education: What teachers think
When teachers were asked what effect the API rewards are having, Mr. Lee (all names are pseudonyms) stated that rewards will "force teachers to comply with a policy that doesn't do anything for the quality of education." Items likely to be cut from teachers' curricula are problem solving, critical thinking, and diversity, because standardized tests cannot measure them directly.

Another teacher, Ms. Jones, said, "People are going to start cutting standards-based curriculum to spend time on the test [items]."

Ms. Epcot said flatly, "Rewards are wrong. They'll increase pressure on teachers and students. Some teachers will cheat."

Sliding quality of education: What students think
When the student group was queried, Sally, Jose, and Tom stated immediately that of course some teachers would feel forced to cheat on those tests. Apparently, eighth graders understand how money incentives work. It is critical that politicians also take into account the impact that financial rewards have on teachers' behavior in the classroom (Morse, 2000).

All schools are not equal: What teachers think
In defense of the API rewards, I brought up the state's attempt to level the playing field between schools by taking into consideration each school's demographic makeup when assigning API numbers. The unilateral response from all teachers I spoke with was, "Obviously NOT!" The teachers believe that the state's calculations did not take circumstances of certain populations into account. In all four districts, it is the schools with the highest percentage of low-income families and non-English speakers that are not identified to receive rewards.

All schools are not equal: What students think
Interestingly, the student group decided that if there were no tests, there would be no cheating. "Accountability" needs to take another form. When asked what will happen if the state continues to pay API rewards, Jose said, "Teachers will only want to teach in rich schools and no one will want to work at poor schools."



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