It seems schools cannot always take credit for high test scores, just as schools are not always to blame for low test scores.
Consider these findings from the Center for Education Research at the University of Wisconsin. Sara Kraemer and Elisabeth Geraghty analyzed eight Milwaukee public schools between October 2008 and February 2009. They grouped schools by test scores, low and high.
Then they evaluated non-school factors that can affect achievement, things such as how well students did in the past, how often a family moves, race and income. They grouped the same schools again, this time by whether the school contributed to students' growth and achievement. They called schools that really contributed to student growth "high value-added." Schools that had little effect on student growth were called "low value-added."
They found schools fell into one of four categories:
• Some were high value-added and had high test scores. Faculty members welcomed the additional measurement. It showed that their efforts made a difference, and that their test scores could not be explained simply because they had "good" students.
• Some were high value-added schools but still had low test scores. These faculty members also welcomed the evaluation. They felt validated, recounts the newsletter "WCER Research Highlights." Even though many students failed to hit the state's proficiency mark on the annual test, students in those schools showed great improvement because of what schools were doing.
• Some were low value-added schools, but still had high test scores. Staff members here were in disbelief, researchers found. Their students scored well, but not because of what the school was doing. Despite appearances by test scores alone, they were not high-performing schools. Faculty at these schools wanted to learn how to improve.
• Finally, there were low value-added schools with low scores. These teachers tended to believe students were the problem, and they did not accept the evaluation as valid.
A Kanawha County elementary school principal described essentially this exact condition to me a decade ago, just before the No Child Left Behind Act took effect.
If you run a school with a high proportion of children with serious problems outside of school -- kids who are always moving, not getting good food or sleep, possibly victims of or witness to violence -- your students start out with a lot of challenges to overcome. They can learn, and improve, but even working hard with the best instruction, they might not score as well as kids who do not face such grievous problems every day. It is easy, even stylish, to beat up on those schools for low test scores, or even decent test scores that aren't quite high enough.
But if you run a school where most of the children are in stable, secure homes, well-fed and rested, ready to learn and encouraged every day, those children may test well no matter what the school does. And the few highly disadvantaged children who are enrolled in that school can be obscured by the higher test scores school-wide.
So which is the better school -- the one working hard to supply what children are missing, moving toward but not necessarily hitting the mark, or the one coasting on the skills and abilities children bring with them to school?