What is Being Measured?


In a few weeks, students here in the overly-large school district will begin the annual ritual of prep for the spring standardized tests. Sometime in the early summer, they and their parents will get the results.

But what do those numbers mean? What do they measure?

Probably not what testing boosters will claim.

A new paper from Jamil Maroun and Christopher Tienken sets out to determine whether a state’s big standardized test measures student learning, teacher effectiveness, or something else. The answer, it turns out, is something else.

“The tests are not measuring how much students learned or can learn,” says Tienken. “They are predominately measuring the family and community capital of the student.”

The researchers, one of whom started his career as an elementary teacher, have been working in this space for many years. And they came to realize that test scores were quite predictable.

In other words, one could, with a high degree of accuracy, predict the results of the annual test of student learning and teacher effectiveness without actually giving students a single test.

However, this is about more than just money.

Wealthier families don’t just have more resources in their homes (including their own educations). They have a wealth of social capital, what Robert Putnam in Our Kids, a powerful study of children and social capital, calls “informal ties to family, friends, neighbors and acquaintances involved in civic associations, religious institutions, athletic teams, volunteer activities, and so on.” Social capital provides easier access to varied experiences, which in turn build background knowledge.

Nothing in this article is really much of a surprise. I think educators who have taught for any length of time understand that the kids in their class who have good support systems at home and in their communities are going to score higher on standardized tests (including the SAT and AP exams) than those without those advantages. Test prep can only go so far.

In fact, the most shocking thing about this piece is that it is published in Forbes, the long-running cheerleader of capitalism and the I-got-mine-you’re-on-your-own culture.

Lots of buzz about snow coming tonight. Only 3-4 inches forecast but it doesn’t take much to mess up the DC area.

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