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Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Test scores in context

Parents, communities have a big role to play in helping young people succeed

Posted 9/10/14

It’s that time of year again that the results of the annual Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, make the news. As always, we report the results (which will appear in next week’s paper) …

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Test scores in context

Parents, communities have a big role to play in helping young people succeed

Posted

It’s that time of year again that the results of the annual Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments, or MCAs, make the news. As always, we report the results (which will appear in next week’s paper) but also try to provide the necessary context.

As long-term readers know, this newspaper has long had concerns about the value of standardized testing and the increasing importance that has been placed on these test results in recent years. The push for more testing has, by and large, not come from educators, but from politicians. That’s not because educators fear accountability, but because they have enough experience to know that test scores, by themselves, are not a good predictor of a child’s future success, nor of the quality of the learning opportunities provided to students.

Despite decades of focus on improving test scores, neither Minnesota nor any other state has much to show for it— and that’s not surprising. While the politicians are quick to blame schools for the lagging academic achievement, we’ve known for years that there is a direct correlation between demographic factors and test scores.

Take two students of equal innate ability, for example. Put one in a firmly middle class family, with two college-educated parents, both of whom stress the importance of education. Put the other in a single-parent household where the parent, a high-school dropout, struggles with two jobs just to keep a roof over the family’s head.

Put both students in the same school. Which do you think, on average, will perform better on academic tests? Sure, there are exceptional children who can excel even in stressful conditions, but they are, by definition, exceptions. On average, we know from extensive research that the student from the single parent household will perform more poorly.

Now, connect the dots. Over the past thirty years, America has witnessed an unprecedented hollowing out of our once strong and growing middle class, and the breakdown of family structures. In 1970, 85 percent of children grew up in two-parent households. Today, it’s about 68 percent, the lowest in history. Nearly half of those kids grow up in poverty. At the same time, economic forces like globalization have eliminated millions of the kinds of jobs that could lift families, once again, into the middle class, and provide their kids a better shot at success.

Academic success doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And standardized tests can’t account for the many intangibles, like growing poverty and family dysfunction that are affecting the lives of children in our society.

Even the best teachers face incredible odds as they try to overcome the many hurdles placed in front of too many young people in their day-to-day lives. Kids need positive adult role models and, for so many young people, those potential role models are too busy working long hours at a low-wage job, or are absent altogether. It’s unrealistic to expect teachers to make up for these kinds of deficits, at least not without additional resources.

The Minneapolis-based Search Institute has developed a set of 40 key “assets” that young people need to succeed. They include things like family support, healthy relationships with other adults, a caring neighborhood, a caring school climate, and, perhaps most importantly, parental involvement in schooling. Where young people have such assets in place, they generally succeed, and they do so regardless of which schools they attend. Where they are missing, young people struggle to find their way, both at school and in life.

All of our communities in the region need to be thinking about how we can, as communities, help our young people succeed by providing positive examples, by showing support for their achievements (and not just in sports), and by actively working to integrate parents into our schools. We need to help our young people build their confidence, explore their world, and to understand their place in it. In many cases, the over-reliance on standardized testing takes away from all that, and does so to the detriment of our young people.

Comparing schools by test scores is a fool’s errand, since the average scores of most schools are much more dependent on the economic and educational backgrounds of the parents of students who attend, than on the quality of the teaching. When a school, like Tower-Soudan Elementary, bucks its demographics and shows real success despite a student body where 75 percent qualify for free and reduced lunches, that’s when it’s worth taking note.

In either case, a school’s overall test scores have virtually no predictive value of how well any particular student will do. A student from a middle class family, who was read to regularly as a child and whose parents are actively involved in their education, will likely do well in just about any quality school. A student missing those kinds of supports will struggle even in the best of schools.

If you want to ensure your child succeeds, focus on providing the kinds of developmental supports that really give them a leg up. As for the politicians, let’s tell them to focus on the economy. Rebuilding our middle class is the best way to improve educational outcomes.

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