What is the best school?

I’ll say it up front: Not a fan of standardized tests.  Yes, they have a place and a time, but the way we tend use them is not terribly effective.  They should be one of only several measures of a school’s effectiveness.  If you don’t believe me, take this example.  In Colorado, we had the statewide standardized test called the CSAP (we’re transitioning to new tests now).  It measured the usual: reading, writing, math, etc.  Sounds like what we should measure, after all, what kid can succeed in the world without those basic skills?  In addition to measuring kids, though, teachers and schools get measured as well.  And then they get funded or de-funded or to a large extreme, even shut down and the employees let go based on standardized test scores.  Sounds a little harsh, but hey, someone has to measure and make a decision, right?

Here’s where that simplistic view starts to break down:  Money makes a difference.  A huge difference.  The income of a family has a direct bearing on the success their child/children will have in school.  Why?  When you step back and think about it, it is somewhat intuitive.

  • Families with higher incomes can afford tutors
  • Families with higher incomes can afford one parent to stay home and work with the kids
  • Families with higher incomes don’t rely on the children also working so they can put meals on the table
  • Families with lower incomes may tend to be more transient – such as migrant workers and seasonal employees

I have walked through the mall at 9:00 pm and watched my wife greet one of her students.  The student wasn’t there because they were out with their friends, the student was there because they were cleaning the floors…so their family could afford to eat.  In that specific instance, my wife told me that same student had a test the next morning.  When would they find time to study?  That was a light bulb moment in my life.  Stories like this are not uncommon, conversely, they are very common.  How do you break that cycle of a lack of education for the children of families with lower incomes?  It’s clearly not by standardized tests and lowering funding for schools with poor results, yet that’s the way some school systems work.

The reality is that, like learning, there are many factors in what constitutes a good school vs. a bad school.  Might the school serving a poorer population be poorly run itself?  Absolutely.  But standardized test scores probably aren’t going to tell you that.  It requires observation and learned people to actually evaluate what’s going on.

I’ll leave you with two examples:

  1. When I lived in Georgia, there was a high school, we’ll call it high school “X”.  High school X served a poor demographic and did poorly on state standardized tests.  There was an article in the paper one year after the test results came out and it blasted high school X.  A couple months later, it was announced that high school X was a semi-finalist in the US Dept. of Education’s Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence program.  Why could this school, blasted for poor performance, be a semi-finalist for such a prestigious recognition?  Simply put, the teachers and the administration had developed tremendous programs for serving their community, and while they couldn’t compete with the schools serving the richer demographics, they could absolutely improve the quality of education for the students they had.  And they did.  What it took was analysis by experts, not a standardized test.
  2. Living in Colorado, we had the CSAP test for many years.  One year, after the results came out, I correlated the top 5 and bottom 5 performing high schools in my district to the percentage of kids on free or reduced lunches.  Guess what?  The top 5 performing high schools were the bottom 5 in percentage of kids on free/reduced lunches, in order.  Similarly, the bottom 5 performing high schools were the top 5, again in perfect order, of kids on free/reduced lunches.  It’s not a coincidence.  Money matters.  Incomes matter.

Convinced?  Hopefully so.  Measuring a school and the quality of education a student receives is so much more than standardized tests.

If you made it this far… thanks for reading!

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