Using Test Scores to Evaluate Schools

Questions & Responses:
School/subject performance(2 responses)
Archived Responses: 
  • General info about looking at test scores
  • Advice about Specific Tests
  • Advice about Test Taking
  • Private School vs. Public School

    Discussions about test scores for ...

  • Berkeley Public Schools
  • Oakland Public Schools
  • Private Schools

    General info about looking at test scores

    Nov. 2003

    I am a teacher in the Piedmont Unified School District, where test scores are nearly astronomical. It is definitely a reflection of the populous -- upper middle class, well-educated. Do the high test scores mean the schools are great? No. But are they great? Yes!

    Test scores do not make a school great. Great teaching does. There are wonderful, creative, loving teachers at all schools in California (despite our low test scores). What is important to look for is a place your child can call home, feel safe, learn from her/his teacher and others, and be part of a community.

    I would recommend looking for a strong learning community: who is involved in the classroom? Teachers? How many years experience do they have? How stable is the teaching and administrative staff? What about support staff? Are parents visible and helping in the classroom too? If not, why not? Do the children look happy and engaged? Or is there relative chaos and wandering about the hallways? Is work proudly displayed and up-to-date? Are there special schoolwide events?

    Berkeley public schools are terrific. I have 2 nephews who attend John Muir and love it. Plus Berkeley is such a community, and public schools are all about the community we (hopefully) embrace. I firmly believe that parents getting and remaining involved can make ANY school a success for their kids and for their community.

    Incidentally, I could as an employee of Piedmont schools send my kids there (as many of my colleagues do), but I choose instead to be a part of my city's (SF) public educational system and LOVE it, for entirely different reasons than I love the schools in Piedmont. I encourage you and everyone to be a part of taking real, positive control of and interest in YOUR public schools. Thanks for listening. Esther

    From: Natasha

    If you are selecting a school, whether it's public or private, based primarily on test scores, please be aware that small differences in test scores are unlikely to be statistically significant. Among the private schools which are at the more academic end of the spectrum, many have published their ERB scores, and you'll find scores mostly in the 89-99th percentile. Similarly, some of the public schools which are most popular tend to have CLAS scores in the 90's.

    In comparing ERB scores, it is tempting to conclude that a school with scores in the 97th percentile must be better than a school with scores in the 92nd percentile. But there are several reasons why this is not proven by the test scores. First of all, the number of students tested at each school is relatively small, and the use of percentiles rather than standard scores for comparison means that a rigorous test for statistical significance cannot be used. In other words, the differences at this level are well within the realm of chance differences.

    Furthermore, some schools test kids before they enter, so that they are already preselecting those who test well, and high test scores may reflect that type of selectivity rather than superior teaching methods.

    As for CLAS scores, at the California Department of Education website which you'll find the most recent scores (1994!) as well as data which compares each school to others with similar demographics (level of parent education or income), in order to tell you whether that school is doing better or worse than comparable schools. Obviously schools in more affluent areas (Piedmont, Orinda, Ross, etc.) will have higher scores than those in more diverse communities. But again, is it because the schools themselves are excellent, or because the parents have higher education levels and resources? The comparative statistics help with that part of the picture. But test scores are still only part of the picture. The teachers, administration, parents, facilities, and programs are not as easily quantified.

    From: a parent

    Re public vs. private school: unfortunately comparisons are not easy to make. The private schools use a private school test score comparison that doesn't compare apples to apples with the test scores used by the public schools. The district office (located next to Cornell) has school reports on each elementary school that you can pick up and which tell the state test scores. All the schools follow the same state authorized curriculum. The private schools are extremely varied in emphasis. Your decision between public and private is therefore governed by your own values, finances, and gut about what is best and do-able for your child/your family. My own feeling is that unfortunately Kindergarten is the hardest year for deciding what to do because of the aftercare issue. With only 3 hours of school you may find your choice has to be what session of kindergarten (am or pm) you need, and that will dictate what school and what teacher you wind up with. When you register you can state a preference, but the district tells you up front that you may not get your choice of session or school, even if your choice is your closest school. This is because the new 20kids per class has wrecked havoc with the space available at different schools. Keep in mind that when picking an elementary school you are choosing not just for Kindergarten but K-5. If you want your child to walk to school with you and have playmates that are close to where you live, you may prefer to request your local school...but since Albany is really small it may not be such a big deal to go to any of the 4 elementary schools. Some people like the small feel of Vista and McGregor since they only go to grade 2 (funneled to Cornell and Marin in higher grades). You just have to visit and get a feel yourself. Also I would urge you to meet the principal and administration in your school. If you are unhappy with any aspect of your child's classroom or teacher these are the people you will need to deal with. Do you feel like they are responsive? In my limited observing I have seen good teaching at Albany schools. The differences between public and private can sometimes be in the teaching styles and sizes of classrooms and the physical facilities and amenities (extra options like music, science). Also, the kids in the public schools have perhaps more diversity in race, income and special needs.

    As an educational researcher, I have visited schools around the state and the country to study or evaluate various programs. I would like to et everybody on this list know that:
    1. test scores (especially ones based on norm-referenced tests like STAR) correlate with parents' level of education/income and have virtually nothing to do with the kind of teaching that takes place in a school. The exception of course is schools who devote ridiculous amounts of curricular time to test prep, as has been the case in Texas.)
    2. a distinguished schools designation often reflects that a school was able to find the funds to get a competent grant writer or teacher to sell their school to the department of ed, and again may have little to do with the actual quality of teaching.

    I have been in distinguished schools with high test scores that are horribly inhumane to children, especially non-white children or children with special needs. I have also been in schools where test scores are abysmal but I would send a child there in a heartbeat because the teachers are both challenging and caring.

    Unless you are concerned about the parent income/education of your child's peer group, test scores will not tell you much. I encourage you to visit the schools yourselves, talk to parents whose children attend those schools, and raise any specific concerns about your child's learning needs.