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Test scores imperfect things, but schools must deal with them

August 11, 2010

Coming off a string of impressive testing results, the Washington County Board of Education received a jolt recently when six schools failed to meet state proficiency standards as defined by test scores.

Superintendent Elizabeth Morgan and Michael Markoe, assistant superintendent for staff and student support, both said the school system would not make excuses for the low scores and rededicate efforts to the task at hand.

Still, excuses were in the air at the Central Office. Bad weather, the economy, ambivalence on the part of students and the winter flu outbreak were given as reasons for the relatively poor showing.

Yet board member Donna Brightman said Washington County "dropped in our state rankings considerably." This might be more ominous than the raw test scores themselves since we certainly weren't the only county to be affected by the snow or the flu.

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We are confident that the board will be able to right the ship and build on the progress made in recent years. But in this most recent round of results, one other issue ought to be apparent.

Test scores are imperfect things. They might give us a clear idea of what's going on in the classroom, or they might not. As board member Paul Bailey said, an unmotivated student has little to lose if he decides not to take the test seriously.

Results are bound to fluctuate based on a number of factors, some of which are unknown.

The board might want to keep this in mind when scores are good and refrain from becoming too giddy and smug, telling the community that the scores are proof-positive of its success in building a world-class school system.

If the board puts all of its eggs in the testing basket, a lot of breakage can occur in bad years such as this. It can't tell us that test scores are important in years the scores rise and that they are less meaningful in years they fall.

Of course, this sword cuts both ways. Critics of the board cannot crow about poor scores, while dismissing good scores as some sort of school board sleight of hand.

The community cannot expect improved test scores every single year, just as investors cannot expect the market to go up each and every day. A general upward trend will do.

As board member Justin Hartings said, "Testing is the world in which we live." It's not ideal, but it's the yardstick we must deal with. To that end, it is wise not to become overconfident when they are good or to panic when they are not.

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