Apodaca: Let's not overreact to dip in test scores

The Newport-Mesa school district recently reported that its most recent standardized test scores declined slightly from a year earlier, the first drop in a decade.

The results mirrored similar declines statewide, a development that led to a spasm of front-page stories and excuse-making by worried educators. Blame was laid on budget cuts and on the supposedly temporary confusion and uncertainty as public schools throughout California transition to new teaching standards.

Newport-Mesa Supt. Fred Navarro even went so far as to suggest the decrease in scores was expected.

"We anticipated the slight dip in scores as our focus has changed during this past year as we prepare to transition to the Common Core State Standards," his statement read.

But here's my own amateur analysis: No one can really say with absolute certainty why the numbers dipped. And more important, it would be a mistake to overreact.

I don't remember much from my college statistics class. But I'd hazard a guess that the overall decreases of 0.4 and 0.6 of a percentage point, respectively, in NMUSD's math and English-language arts scores aren't — for lack of a more technical term — a big deal statistically speaking.

And it's worth noting that our district's scores are still well above state averages.

Yes, we'd all like to see test scores moving in a positive direction. But the fact that such tiny changes in data are treated as major news says a whole lot more about the modern hysteria over standardized testing than it does about the relative health of our schools.

When I spoke to Navarro about the test results, he treaded a fine line between concern and caution.

"I think accountability is important," he said. "This is one type of accountability."

He repeated his belief that the shift to the new Common Core standards is having a temporary effect.

"You're teaching a new curriculum that has a different set of expectations," he said. "It does take some time away" from teaching to the old standards, upon which students are still being assessed.

The new standardized testing system aligned with the Common Core objectives, which is being designed by the Smarter Balance Assessment Consortium, will be implemented in Newport-Mesa in the spring of 2015, he said.

Which means that it's altogether possible we'll see more disappointing test scores next year. If so, it would be wise not to read too deeply into the results. The change to Common Core is a huge undertaking, and the hoped-for payoff in the depth of student learning is likely to take time.

But in this era of heightened anxiety and overblown rhetoric when it comes to standardized testing and school accountability, it's hard not to expect that another year of lower scores — however small the decline — would result in some serious teeth-gnashing and calls for action.

That would be unfortunate because there's plenty of reason to doubt whether test results alone are a consistently reliable indicator of school quality. Yet the many calls to place less emphasis on test scores and more on serious underlying issues such as poverty, teacher training and important programs that have been lost to budget cuts routinely receive far less attention.

When standardized tests began to proliferate in American schools throughout much of the 20th century, they were largely seen as a means to measure student progress. By the 1970s, however, the idea of using the tests to evaluate schools had begun to take hold.

But a sea change occurred in 2002 with the passage of President George W. Bush's controversial No Child Left Behind Act, which for the first time mandated standardized testing for all public school children, required states to use test results to rate schools, and threatened to pull federal funding from schools that regularly scored poorly.

More than a decade later, the concept of using test scores to measure school progress is deeply ingrained in our educational system. We check test results like box scores and rate schools as if they're our favorite teams vying for playoff status. When we talk about whether a school is "good" or "bad," it's the standardized test scores we're referring to — sometimes without even realizing it — when we make that distinction.

It's not a wholly negative development. We do need to push schools to improve performance levels and hold teachers and administrators accountable for the jobs they do. I can't think of anyone who argues otherwise.

But standardized test scores have been elevated to a disproportionately powerful position in education today, sometimes unfairly jeopardizing careers and often steering educational goals in unhelpful and unproductive ways. We need to put test scores back into perspective, as just one piece of a bigger picture we must draw showing how, and how well, our kids are really learning.

That's probably not going to happen, at least not anytime soon. In the meantime, when standardized test results are made public, it would at least be a good idea for us all to take a deep breath and a long view, realizing that a one-year dip of less than a percentage point in test scores does little to fill in that very large and complicated picture.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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