What do test scores tell us about schools?

Collin Hitt, Michael Q. McShane, and Patrick J. Wolf just published a report on the connection (or lack of connection) between test scores and long-term outcomes.

They looked at a bunch of school choices studies and tried to see if a school’s impact on student test scores was connected to its impact on student life outcomes.

Their conclusion: “at least for school choice programs, there is a weak relationship between impacts on test scores and later-life outcomes.”

Much of our K12 education policy is predicated on the idea that test scores are an important measure of school performance. If this is not true, behavior should change.

The Laura and John Arnold Foundation is currently funding more research on this question, and I’m eager to see what we find, especially with regards to income gains over time. This study was predicated on high school and college attainment being an indicator of long-term outcomes, but schooling isn’t always learning. So we should be careful judging school performance based on later school attainment, rather than income (or other measures).

But for now, here’s what’s on my mind after reading the study.

What do bad test score results tell us?

If I’m reading their report correctly (and I hope the authors correct me if I’m not), it seems rare that schools have a negative impact on test scores but a positive impact on long-term outcomes.

In the 126 study comparisons where test scores impacts were compared to high school or college outcomes, there were only 2 instances where a study found a significant negative impact on test scores and a significant positive impact on life outcomes.

It seems rare for a school to do really poorly on test scores but really great on life outcomes. I think the authors underemphasize this point in their paper.

What do mediocre test scores tell us?

It is much more common for schools to have a neutral (insignificant) impact on test scores but a significant positive impact on long-term outcomes. It looks like this occurred 32 times in the research review.

There may be a bunch of schools that don’t really impact test scores but are doing something that helps with long-term outcomes.

What do great test scores tell us?

There are no cases where a study found significantly positive test scores and significantly negative life outcomes.

So it seems rare for schools to jack up test scores but ruin kids lives. That’s good.

However, there were 17 instances of studies finding positive impact on test scores but neutral impacts on long-term outcomes.

So there seem to be some schools that are achieving good test results without translating these into great long-term outcomes.

How should this research affect regulation and philanthropy?

If these results hold, I think I will maintain my belief that we should replace schools with persistent very negative test scores. There appears to be little risk that these schools are really amazing schools. The negative test scores are a useful signal.

Yes, there might be other schools that are just as bad at life outcomes that are not closed because they achieve better test scores, but so long as we are closing schools that are not delivering great life outcomes, and opening schools that have a better chance of achieving great life outcomes, this seems like a worthwhile tradeoff.

But when it comes to expanding schools, if this research holds, I will rely less on positive test scores, and I think authorizers should do the same.

From an authorizer perspective, so long as a school does not have significantly negative test scores, perhaps the school should be able to expand so long as there is parent demand.

Philanthropy may also need to adjust by investing more heavily in school operators that show a positive impact on life outcomes (irregardless of test scores), and being willing to fund mediocre test score schools who either have high parent demand or who are using practices that are correlated with positive long-term outcomes (more research needed to determine what these might be).

I am very open to moving in this direction if research warrants it. The idea that it’s easier to tell a bad school than it is to identify a great school already matches my intuition, and deferring to parent judgment makes a lot of sense if we are not confident in our analysis of performance.

2 thoughts on “What do test scores tell us about schools?

  1. matthewladner

    NK-

    This seems like an important step in the right direction imo. Rather than getting tied up in knots over the question of whether authorities should EVER close a charter-replete with “oh yeah but what if they are sacrificing people to Cthulu on the playground?!?” hypothetical situations- we should acknowledge that it should be rare but will happen. What does not need to be rare in parents closing schools. If you give them the option of attending suburban district, magnet, private and a growing and diverse charter sector, parents will in fact close schools with a brutal efficiency. Whether they are basing their decisions on test scores or other factors, this seems to be working out quite well in the aggregate places like Arizona and Colorado. Most charter sectors fail to achieve this largely self-correcting state because they don’t have many non-urban charters, don’t have much private choice, and thus do not unlock the suburbs.

    Liked by 1 person

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  2. Pingback: What is California telling us about what parents want from public education? | relinquishment

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