Wednesday, July 9, 2014

A Reminder That Numbers Don’t Always Tell the Story

By: Patrick O'Connor Ph.D

Michigan residents received interesting news about their schools this week, as the state released its annual test results.  According to the report, and to a related editorial in the Lansing State Journal, Michigan’s eleventh graders managed to do three very interesting things, all at the same time:

·         As a group, their scores on the Michigan Merit Exam went up;
·         At the same time, the number of students the test deemed to be “college-ready” went down;
·         At 200 high schools, not a single junior was college-ready, according to the test.
If the purpose of data is to lead to more questions, this set of test scores gets an A, since the results seem to be confusing at best, and discouraging at worst.

How can scores go up if fewer students are college ready?  The test used to determine college readiness is the ACT, which measures student performance in English, math, science reasoning, and math.  Students are college-ready only if they score at a certain level at each of the four areas.  This means more students scored higher on parts of the exam than last year, but fewer of them scored at the college level ready in all four areas.

So it’s kind of like having five players on your basketball team that each score 20 points, instead of having one player score 30, and the other four score 10.  Exactly.  Michigan’s students generated more points, but fewer individuals were, so to speak, high scorers.

Is that good?  As a group, Michigan scored higher on the exam to move up the average.  That suggests students as a whole are learning more, so that’s good news.

But fewer students are college ready, so that’s bad, right?  It would be much better if the average scores had gone up *and* if more students were college ready, for sure.  But the increase in scores likely means more students are closer to being college ready, as it’s measured by the test. 

Will this lead to more students taking remedial classes in college, or flunking out?  That’s hard to say.  If a student majoring in History is college ready (according to the ACT) in reading and English, but not math and science, they might get through the few college-level  math and science classes they need with more study time and a tutor. Engineering students with high math and science scores who didn’t make the ACT college-ready standard in English may have a harder time, since you have to read no matter what you study, but they might be OK as well, if their scores were only a point or two away.

Because the test isn’t perfect, and some students who scored close to college-ready may be fine.  Right.

So the college-bound students at those 200 high schools will probably be OK?  Many of those students will go on to college and be fine, as long as they study hard in their senior year and make good college choices.  Still, educators in those schools will be looking to see what they can do to get all of their students across the finish line. Zero is a powerful number, and that could be good news in the end.

Anything else in the data we should know about?  The breakdown of average scores by race continues to be discouraging—only 5% of African-American students taking the test were viewed as college-ready in math. This suggests we have a long way to go in working with students of color, especially in low-income areas; but if anyone needed test scores to realize that, you have to wonder if they’ve been paying attention.

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