Cooking the numbers

As I said yesterday I’m exploring educational outcomes this week. We all want better schools, but what does that mean and how do we get there? We read a lot about the results of standardized tests. Indeed, we can read the numbers in the paper like they were a batting average or election result. But what do those numbers really mean? Well, one thing to wrap your head around is the fact that states vary widely in how they assess learning, and as this Hoover Institute study shows some states don’t aim very high when they determine proficiency. So what numbers should we be looking at? I’ve got some ideas. Stay tuned.


  1. Interesting story Aaron. I didn’t realize there was such a variation on what states considered proficient.

    It would be interesting to go back and find out how many students from previous years and generations would be considered proficient by today’s standards. I doubt if there’s any way to get a good estimate though.

    There was an article in the Duluth News Tribune yesterday about science proficiency. While Duluth’s numbers were decent overall, there was a huge gap between the wealthier and poorer neighborhoods in town. While 70% of fourth graders at Congdon Park (wealthier neighborhood in East Duluth) were considered proficient in science, only 13% at Laura Macarthur (West Duluth) and just 3% at Lincoln Park (poor area) were considered proficient. While there’s always going to be somewhat of a gap between the wealthier and poorer neighborhoods, there’s obviously an issue beyond bad parenting when only 3% at one school is proficient on the same test.

  2. If I were Superintendent of the World: I would devise a way to make the testing really tell a story of what is going on, which teachers are above average, which kids need basic help, which curriculum is better, etc.

    But testing doesn’t show that stuff, really. This year’s third grade class does better than last year’s third grade class in reading. WHY? Maybe the kids are smarter or maybe last year’s class had kids with other first languages, or maybe 5 kids were out with extended illnesses.

    Especially in small schools with small classes, the numbers can be meaningless because we can’t know, because of privacy rights, what is behind the numbers.

    When my daughter was in 2nd grade, the school counselor told me that her class had 4 kids who scored extremely high on the tests, while no other school in the whole area had more than one student who did that. Quite frankly, it was pretty easy to guess who those four were and they went on to stellar academic careers, top in class, national merit scholars, suma cum laude, etc.

    We really shouldn’t “blame” the really high end scores nor the really low end scored on the schools.

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