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Students’ test scores

Why they tell us more about the community the students live in than what they know

ANALYSIS | CHRISTOPHER TIENKEN | Every year, policymakers around the world make life-changing decisions based on the results of standardised tests in schools. These high-stakes decisions include, but are not limited to, student promotion to the next grade level, student eligibility to participate in advanced coursework, and eligibility to graduate. However, research shows that the outcomes of standardised tests of students don’t reflect the quality of instruction, as they’re intended to. This raises the possibility that there are serious flaws built into education accountability systems and the decisions about educators and students made within those systems.

Colleagues and I have conducted studies whose results show that it’s possible to predict the percentages of students who will score proficient or above on some standardised tests. We can do this just by looking at some of the important characteristics of the community, rather than factors related to the schools themselves, like student-teacher ratios or teacher quality.

Predicting scores

It’s already well-established that out of-school, community demographic and family-level variables strongly influence student achievement on large-scale standardised tests.

For example, median family income is a strong predictor of SAT results. Other factors strongly linked to achievement on state standardised tests include parental education levels, percentage of lone parents in the school community and percentage of families living in poverty in the community.

In 40 states in the USA, teachers are evaluated in part based on the results from student standardised tests, as are school administrators in almost 30 states.

Colleagues and I have conducted studies in New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa and Michigan.

We decided to see if we could predict standardised test scores based on demographic factors related to the community where a student lived. By looking at three to five community and family demographic variables from U.S. Census data, we have been able to accurately predict the percentages of students who score proficient or above on standardised test scores for grades three through 12. These predictions are made without looking at school district data factors such as school size, teacher experience or per pupil spending.

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