Sunday, September 4, 2016

More than test scores

Our town’s schools are not well regarded by anyone except parents with kids in the schools, and perhaps some of the kids themselves. We don’t invest a lot in the schools, we don’t maintain the schools, the population is lower income, there’s a long history of people in the community using Catholic schools instead of public schools, and the test scores are mediocre. But lots of parents with kids in the schools are happy with them.

Is this like Congress, where everyone is happy with their personal Representative/teacher but hates Congress/schools as a whole? Or is this a case where people have no real comparison point because they haven’t experienced many different schools? Or is this like preschool, where kids are pretty well guaranteed to learn lots of things because that’s how growing brains work, so if the preschool doesn’t actively hurt the kids they naturally seem like they’re doing a good job?

The most common story I hear about school ratings is that it’s based on test scores, which correlate to family income, family educational attainment, and other factors which aren’t changed by moving to a new town. But the core question as we decide whether to try to stay here or move to a different town is will our child do better in a different school with the same family, since we’re not willing to change his family.

Here’s a local parent talking about a recent ranking of area schools where our town did poorly: “Oh yay, another list where you have to scroll down past 25 or 30 to see a town with a median home price under $900,000. They do provide some interesting data for constructive criticism and feedback to school boards (class size is a good example) - but the emphasis on sports and AP courses is always going to skew results and take emphasis away from equally - if not more important factors - like music and arts, after school activities, volunteer/community service clubs, cultural programs, etc.”

So it sounds like we compare poorly on class size, sports, and AP courses as well, not just on test scores. I agree that the last set of factors are important too, but I’m not convinced we actually do better on any of those other metrics. Are we giving kids three hours a week of music and arts, while other towns are only giving kids one hour a week? Do we have more field trips, more in-school enrichment, more volunteer opportunities, or more after school activities?

My guess is that we are comparable or worse than lots of towns on those other factors as well. We tell ourselves stories about those other factors precisely because they aren’t measured, and therefore we don’t have to worry about facts contradicting our narrative.

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