For decades, education “reform” has maintained a nearly singleminded focus on standardized test scores: low achievement, gaps in achievement, and comparing achievement. That test scores predict success later in life was the premise of various federal reforms, from the George W. Bush-era No Child Left Behind Act to the recent Every Student Succeeds Act, which gives states more flexibility but still retains some of the test score concentration of its predecessor. It’s also the standard by which many judge innovative school choice programs, like vouchers or education savings accounts.
Reliance on test scores as the measure of our education programs is so ubiquitious in the policy world that policymakers often dispair that test scores seem less important to the choices parents make than many other factors, such as a religious environment, safer campus, or aligned values.
But what if test scores have little connection to the kind of outcomes we are truly seeking? What if, in fact, parents did know better all along?
New research from the University of Arkansas suggests that parents are on to something. Researchers found that while some programs did a great job of improving test scores, long term effects such as higher graduation rates and college persistence (actually completing a degree), were absent. Conversly, some choice programs didn’t do much for students’ test scores, but saw significant improvement in many more important outcomes like attainment and future earnings. In other words, the connection between test scores and the kinds of life outcomes that we actually care about – happy and successful citizens – is much weaker than many education “experts” assume it is.
And empowering families through choice has other positive consequences, many of them far more important. For example, students in the Milwaukee voucher program were a whopping 79 percent less likely to be convicted of a felony as young adults than matched public school students. Incidences of common offenses like drug busts and theft came down by 93 and 87 percent, respectively.
School choice opponents like to blame poor public school performance on unresponsive parents, but there is evidence that giving parents the ability to choose the school vastly increases their interaction with their childrens’ educators. Parents who enroll their children in schools of their choice say they communicate more with teachers, volunteer more with the school, and read more at home than they did when their children attended a zoned public school. School choice also sharply increases parental satisfaction with the education their children are getting.
Involved, satisfied families and lower crime? These are outcomes that change lives and communities.
Researchers like to focus on test scores because they’re easily comparable across different schools, districts, and states. That’s fair enough, and perhaps testing has its role as one of the few standardized metrics that can be used to evaluate systems against one another. But when emphasis on test scores supplants the more individualized and important information only parents can truly have access to, and when standardized tests supercede families’ decisionmaking power, they becomes destructive.
Parents will always know more than policymakers, elected representatives, education bureaucrats, and researchers when it comes to finding the right educational environment for their children. While testing will likely continue to have its place in the American education landscape, it’s time we made sure it takes a solid backseat to parent choice.