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Reporting out test scores (what fun!)

By Tom Page, SCN Founder | The Encourager

Only once during my years as a newspaper education reporter did I have to position my long, skinny reporter’s notepad above my outstretched palm to signal a “T” for timeout and beg, “Tell me that again in plain English.”

I was interviewing a school curriculum specialist and his speech was swimming in acronyms: NCLB, AYP, NRT, CCSS, TOEFL, MEAP, ACT, SAT. I’d been on the education beat long enough to know what those things meant (sort of), but I still felt like I was drowning in the alphabet.

Jargon happens. But when it comes to explaining standardized tests scores and their implications, it happens too much.

As a school communicator, you know there will always be two or three times a year that you’ll have to be ready to talk about standardized test scores to your school staff, parents, students, and the media.

I know superintendents who readily admit they dread each new release of standardized test scores because it requires them to explain a truly complex issue in 300 words or less. Of course, only a third will be picked up by the media. (I’m here to tell school communicators that those over-simplified charts and graphs that you all hate because they compare schools are a ton of work to assemble!)

As a reporter, I dreaded these stories as well. I’d rather endure a root canal than hear the pat phrase “scores reflect a single test on a single day.” (And there would usually be one district that would dodge my pre-arranged call to collect their score; causing me to marshal my investigatory powers and pull the superintendent off the handball court at his health club! Take that!)

Alas, standardized tests honestly are a snap shot in time. The pat phrase is perfectly true. The tests are timed “blacken-the-bubble” multiple-choice exams that might or might not assess important knowledge. And people need to be reminded that scores are only ONE WAY to measure and rank schools.

A brief history of standardized testing (even these things have a “story”)

The federal government mandates testing students on core subjects, but states generally set the “cut scores” that determine whether a student’s learning is proficient, satisfactory, or in need of improvement.

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requires states to sort scores into groups based on students’ gender, ethnicity, and their family’s socioeconomic status. NCLB also requires states to track whether a school’s students are making adequate yearly progress (AYP) from one year to the next.

Extra money is available to help “failing” schools turn-around, and, conversely, there are sanctions against schools that can’t improve over a six-year period.

Primer for explaining standardized test scores

To understand a score, people need to understand the scale. Providing the “mean” and the “standard deviation” define the standard score scale, but you can’t say that because that’s jargon and people’s eyes will glaze over.

Substitute the word “average” for “mean” and people will get it.  Standard deviation is the range in which most scores fall. Provide an example and your audience won’t walk out.[/pullquote]

The highest of the high-stakes standardized tests are the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) and ACT (American College Test), which provide a basis for college admissions decisions.

How to talk about it

I asked Linda Wacyk, communications director at the Michigan Association of School Administrators, to recommend someone adept at explaining standardized test scores.

“Send me to someone who can put scores in context without putting anybody to sleep,” I said.

Linda put me in touch with Kathleen Peasley, who is in her ninth year as assistant superintendent at Grand Ledge Public Schools, where Linda serves as Board of Education president.

Last year Kathleen had lackluster high school scores to explain, largely because the state just ramped up its definition of “proficient,” which Kathleen said was 1) overdue, and 2) necessary since Michigan is adopting a national curriculum, which is more rigorous.

(Hey, it was probably also a  “single test on a single day.”)

Kathleen’s tips

1)   Never talk publicly about scores or what they mean before you comb through the raw data.  “Mine the data looking for silver linings,” Kathleen said. “Even if scores are down overall, it’s likely that scores in some subgroups improved. It wouldn’t be fair to overlook those gains.”

2)   List talking points you plan to cover and keep it in front of you as you speak. “Turn questions around to answer the questions you want to have asked,” Kathleen said.

3)  Say you don’t know if you don’t know.

4)   Guard against panicking that wholesale curriculum changes are necessary on the basis of one poor year. “You need three years of data to establish a trend,” Kathleen said. “Five years is ideal.”

5)   Readily acknowledge problems and say how they will be addressed. “The last thing you want is to sound frustrated or defensive,” Kathleen said. “Show you’re diligently working to improve, even when the scores are good.”

6)   Develop relationships with reporters. Stay after board meetings to answer their questions and they’ll be more likely to include your district in stories and take care to give it fair treatment. (Kathleen says she strives to respond quickly to reporters, even when they’re not on deadline. She makes the assumption that this courtesy will pay dividends later if Grand Ledge became part of a controversial story. Why not make the release of your standardized test scores a time for nurturing media relations?)

Uncomfortable stuff that preparation can’t relieve

When Grand Ledge scores are unfavorably compared to scores in surrounding districts, Kathleen said she may point out that Grand Ledge is among the lowest funded school systems in the Lansing area – but she hates sniping the neighbors.

“We’re in a competitive environment,” Kathleen said, “yet Michigan pays incentives for school districts that collaborate. It’s an interesting walk.”

Addressing disparities in achievement between different types of students feels like bad manners. In Grand Ledge, achievement gaps are most common between regular education and special education students, other groups having too few students for NCLB to require counting. Kinda feels like blaming students for their disabilities. Kathleen doesn’t go there until questioning pushes her.

In July the advocacy group Education Trust-Midwest called widening achievement gaps between black and white students, and poor and affluent students on the Michigan Merit Exam “shameful.” The headlines caught many by surprise because scores had improved overall.

In short: Standardized test scores are a minefield. Get a game plan and walk carefully.