“To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail”
— Mark Twain.
The Mississippi Department of Education released the results of the statewide Mississippi Assessment Program (MAP) test this week. The tests, taken by public school students in grades 3-8 in English and Math and Algebra 1, will be used to assign A through F grades for individual schools and school districts.
It is then that the real wailing or bragging, depending on the letter grade, will commence.
In political circles, among those who favor “school choice” through privatization of schools, poor grades will serve as confirmation of that opinion.
Public school supporters will view the same low scores as evidence of the damage rendered by our state not adequately funding schools.
Regardless of which view you favor, this is all “hammer talk.”
Yet once we remove ourselves from the politics of education, it should be obvious that reaching broad conclusions on the results of a single test is a dubious enterprise.
While scores don’t lie, they don’t tell the full story, either; nor do they account for any number of factors that can influence test results.
Some students, we know, test well. Others do not. For some, other factors — chief among them poverty — have an impact on testing that cannot be ignored. Students, who have good, safe home environments and parental support, do better in most everything, including school. Conversely, those who are deprived of those things generally suffer in a variety of ways, including in the classroom.
One might be inclined to use these test scores to compare progress from one year to the next, which would be legitimate to some degree were it not for the fact Mississippi students have taken three different tests in the last three years. It is, essentially, an apples-to-oranges comparison.
How then, should we view these results? The best approach is to use the tests to determine where the student is struggling, why he or she is struggling and develop plans to address those deficits. For those students who are thriving, the results should be used to identify what the schools are doing right and apply these “best practices” broadly.
Test scores should not be the final word on student achievement. Rather, they should be a starting point.
Testing has its place and is a useful tool.
But it should not be a hammer.