EDUCATION MATTERS: The student testing quandary

Marsha Sutton
Marsha Sutton

By Marsha Sutton


I was wondering how to present, yet again, another story on student test scores. Thanks to the recent showing by Del Mar Hills Academy of the movie “Race to Nowhere” and the questions asked afterwards, I found my opening.

One complaint from an audience member about No Child Left Behind and the resultant testing frenzy was greeted with nods of sympathy, and anger toward the perpetrators of what has become an all-consuming obsession with testing.

Although California students were tested at various intervals before, the drive to test-test-test ramped up in earnest with the passage of the No Child Left Behind legislation under former President George W. Bush. Initially a worthwhile idea, NCLB reinforced efforts by states to test students on knowledge of standards-based curriculum and to examine data revealing how well students from various racial, cultural and societal demographic backgrounds were performing.

After all, how can we measure how well our students and teachers are doing unless we test them? But then the law of unintended consequences kicked in, and testing mania replaced common sense, sacrificing real learning in favor of rote memorization and substituting a shallow understanding of excess material instead of deeper knowledge that could translate into critical thinking skills.

But one positive, and quite significant, result of the testing madness is that educators and the public now pay more attention to the performance of groups of students who were all but forgotten before.

Examining the achievement of subgroups is a relatively new concept, and a critical one. Without the ability to see how traditionally low-performing demographic subgroups like Hispanics, English language learners and low-income students are faring, these students’ scores would be lost in the school’s composite score.

Ken Noah, superintendent of the San Dieguito Union High School District, said at a student achievement workshop last month that without the disaggregated data that separates test scores by subgroups, it would be far too easy to ignore the performance of individual groups of students.

Those scores would “get buried in the overall high-performance of the total,” he said, noting that the system “doesn’t let you off the hook.”

For example, Torrey Pines High School achieved an Academic Performance Index number of 870 this year – a high score that placed it among the top three comprehensive high schools in the county. Without the ability to look at the API numbers for separate subgroups, however, satisfied educators could easily believe that everything’s going swimmingly.

I’m picking on Torrey here, but the point applies to all schools. Lacking data on the academic performance of specific subgroups of students, educators would be unable to narrow, let alone even recognize, the achievement gap that exists between white and Asian students on the one hand and African-Americans, Hispanics, English learners, low-income students and students with disabilities on the other hand.

For Torrey Pines, this year’s overall API was 870. But for its subgroups, the breakdown was as follows:

Asians: 949
Whites: 867
Hispanics: 680
English learners: 677
Low-income: 624
Students with disabilities: 601


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