Our View: The conundrum of standardized tests

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(Photo/Cody Mello-Klein)
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The release this week of preliminary data from the 2018-19 Standards of Learning tests left Alexandria City Public Schools in a familiar space: gains in some areas, losses in others and a continued glaring gap between ACPS performance and state averages.

Because a comprehensive discussion is beyond the scope of one editorial, we are going to focus on one macro and one micro angle. First, thoughts on standardized tests in general and then, what ACPS’ continued lagging behind the rest of the state in SOL performance means.

The words “standardized test” can make students break out in a sweat and teachers start tugging at whatever hair their difficult profession has left them with. We think standardized tests are simultaneously necessary and problematic.

Children must take standardized tests starting at ages four and five for admission to private schools. All schools administer standardized tests in elementary and high school as a measure of student achievement and teacher performance.

Standardized tests usually determine what college a student will attend, a situation made more rigid by the advent of the common application, which makes it easier for students to apply to many more colleges than in the pre-common-app era. When a school like UCLA receives 120,000 applications for its freshman class of just under 6,000, a test threshold for ACT and SAT scores becomes a must.

Here are what we see as positives from standardized testing:

1) They enable year-over-year comparisons within schools, school districts and for individual students.

2) They enable comparisons of schools, school districts and students with counterparts across the state and country.

3) They are one criterion for making objective decisions about admissions and educational policy.

And here are some negatives:

1) Standardized tests are but one measure of a student’s current ability and future potential. A host of factors may limit some students’ scores and boost others’. While standardized tests have been shown to be good indicators of future academic performance, they can’t begin to capture all facets of a student’s ability or human potential.

2) Teachers often complain about the need to “teach to the test.” If standardized scores become the goal rather than a tool, students and teachers lose.

3) Elementary and secondary schools can’t lose sight of their mission to help students achieve their personal best level. Whether that personal best looks good when translated into an SOL score is largely irrelevant.

Alexandria’s performance compared to the rest of the state on SOL scores continues to frustrate everyone who cares about ACPS and the children it educates. On the one hand, Alexandria’s achievement gap is in large part due to the high level of poverty among our school age population, as well as the challenges inherent in educating such an extremely diverse student body, among which more than 100 different languages are spoken.

On the other hand, the fact that our spending per pupil continues to significantly outpace that of the rest of the state indicates that lack of funding is not the primary problem here, because we are spending more and achieving less.

In 2016, according to the website “Governing,” the average expenditure per student across Virginia school districts was $11,433. In Alexandria, it was estimated to cost $17,193 per student for FY2018. While those numbers, coming from close but different years, are not precise for comparison, it’s a safe assumption that per pupil in Alexandria is roughly $5,000 more than the state average.

We think Dr. Gregory Hutchings Jr. and Alexandria’s school board are correct to be pursuing multiple pathways to learning, recognizing that one-size-fits all doesn’t work anywhere, especially not in a city as diverse as Alexandria.

Traveling down that road, though, will likely require developing additional criteria for measuring success, while acknowledging that SOL performance in Alexandria is unlikely to dramatically improve anytime soon.

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