Are Test Results Misused?

June 20, 2019

The goal of this blog is to encourage the development of healthier students as part of the educational program. There has been resistance to this type of change as dealing with student health problems has not been part of traditional education, especially mental health related issues. Identification of problems was part of the system, but intervention was left to families and outside agencies.


The prior posts have tried to point out the numerous emotional and behavioral problems that undermine and divide our country. Yet test scores still remain the focal point of educators. Over the last 40 years there have been many Superintendents in Philadelphia, each used a different test and each claimed achievement growth during their tenure. Each test revealed the student’s current achievement level and skill weaknesses. Based on that information, programs and curricular changes were made along with teacher training. A simple plan, instructional weaknesses were found and extra emphasis was placed on what needed to be learned. The problem is that it doesn’t work, test scores today in Philadelphia schools are well below average just as they were 40 years ago. In 1974, using a standardized achievement test, students had average percentile ranks in the mid-30’s in reading and math, not good, in 2018 after many test changes, skills are examined and the bottom rank is below basic where in math, 66% of Philadelphia students were in that category – not good. These problems can be found in all urban districts, New York city had similar testing issues. Instructional programs are valuable and they help students, but not enough to make the differences needed in low achieving populations, because they do not address the student’s needs.


Here are some headlines over the years – All in the Philadelphia Inquirer

  • 02/04/2019 – Philadelphia schools are on a winning streak - Opinion

  • 06/17/2005 – District cites progress in test scores

  • 11/16/2001 - Despite higher scores , city schools still lag

  • 11/11/1990 – Test scores show city students holding steady

  • 02/15/1987 -Higher Philadelphia test scores prompt optimism

  • 06/22/1982 - Despite strike, city students shine in basic skills test

My favorite is in 1982 where a nasty strike lost 50 school days and test scores went up, prompting one school board member to ask – how much would scores go up if we closed schools for a longer time.



So how can test scores improve under each Superintendent and not really change?  One reason is that different tests were used by each Superintendent. It seems test scores good down the first year with a new test, so all new Superintendents changed the test and then focused on weaknesses to have yearly test growth. It is more complicated than that as the sample populations used to develop a test change for each test, as do test questions and their difficulty. Educators often behave as if tests are like scales used to measure weight, they are not, those scales are very accurate, but test results can be different for a number of reasons. That is why using tests to measure year to year growth can be very misleading. Another concern is how scores changed from test to test over the last 40 years, more like a roller coaster ride. Again, hard to have too much confidence that year to year changes really represent achievement growth.


Finally, but most important, test results do not tell you why test scores are low and to assume the answer is solely instructional is a mistake.


There is a growing body of evidence that supports that emotional and behavioral problems affect learning and that teaching mental health skills are important. For example:

Kaiser Permanente has developed the Thriving Schools Program: They believe schools are an ideal setting to support the social and emotional well-being of students. When schools support social and emotional well-being, students typically have fewer disciplinary issues, can focus more on school work, and can develop skills to communicate better. This can translate to improved academic outcomes and better health later in life. Training students in mindfulness, and incorporating social and emotional learning into the classroom curriculum are two approaches.


Mindful Meditation:  Evidence for the Impact of Mindfulness on Children and Young People. Katherine Weare (2012) examined twenty studies of mindfulness interventions with school aged children published in scientific journals and concluded: Mindfulness for young people is easy to carry out, fits into a wide range of contexts, is enjoyed by both students and teachers, and does no harm. Mindfulness interventions can improve the mental, emotional, social and physical health and wellbeing of young people. It has been shown to reduce stress, anxiety, reactivity, bad behavior, improve sleep and self­‐esteem.


Preventing Anxiety in Children through Education in Schools project was carried out by Oxford University in 2014. 1362 children aged 9-10, from 40 different schools, were given either classroom-led CBT by teachers, or mental facility-based CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) for an entire year. The results showed that not only did it help children manage their emotions and stress levels, but also their problem-solving skills.


There are a number of universities and foundations that have been working on the development of programs to teach mental health skills to students. The resources are available, but the time, effort and commitment are still needed.

One of the goals of the Philadelphia Inquirer Op-Ed (06/21/2019) was to start a conversation among educators, mental health professionals and politicians.  Changing the goals of education from improving test scores to focus on developing healthier students requires the support and cooperation of three groups. 


Superintendents must accept that instructional changes have not made the differences needed.  Learning is a two-way street and currently all the emphasis is on teachers, the curriculum and how it is taught.


Mental health professionals must work with educators to develop a curriculum. Their knowledge of what skills students must develop combined with an educator’s knowledge of making them grade appropriate lessons.

Politician’s need to take the time understand these new ideas and why they can help resolve these new problems. This is not an overnight process, so when test scores do not immediately improve, remember that test scores in urban systems have changed little over the last 40 years. The real goals are the mastery of skills to develop healthier students who can put more energy and time into learning.



Tests are important to identify the student’s baseline skills and to make appropriate goals. One problem is that not only are students being tested too often, there is more energy and money put into developing tests than strategies to help students.


Tests provide information about how a student compares to peers and offers an assessment of the skills level using words like basic or proficient or a percentile rank. It does not provide information about why an individual’s skills are at a given level. Educational leaders always assume that they can teach what is missing by offering more instruction in a given area. In the last 40 years it can be said that every curriculum, instructional approach and teacher training has been tried in urban systems and it has not worked.


When students in a school population score at the lower end of a test, it means that they were able to only get the easiest or lower skill items correct. If instruction focuses on those skill areas, it is possible to attain slightly better scores, but it is more akin to teaching the test. When a new test is given the students do not fare well and scores usually go down. The point is students are not really learning more and the real reasons they are struggling have not been addressed


Part of working together is to accept that test scores are being misused. Tests are not like using a scale when trying to lose weight. Different tests find different results, perhaps a mirror would offer more information. The mirror in this analogy are teachers providing feedback about a student’s behavior. An honest analysis of what is being seen in the mirror by all involved is what is needed. All those small test score improvements are not that meaningful if you know the mirror image has not really changed.


What are the goals of education?  To help students develop sufficient academic skills so they are capable of learning how to learn after they leave school. When traditional methods do not work for students, new ideas must be employed to help the traditional methods succeed. School systems will not change quickly, but starting with a small percentage of schools in their system to implement programs and evaluate their success would be a great start.



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