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Tests Should Elevate Communities. Not Lower Expectations

Yes, average test scores vary by geography, income and race. Yes, economically disadvantaged communities and some race/ethnicity minority groups consistently achieve lower scores on average than wealthy communities and majority groups. A vital question for education systems, individual experts in education, and national, state and local communities is how do we use the data and information to affect change?

Over the past century, at every level of education from kindergarten through post-baccalaureate admissions, standardized test scores have been employed as a criterion in helping to open up educational opportunities for people in diverse and dispersed populations. For the past six decades standardized assessments like the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) and the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) have been increasingly employed for reporting the status of education in diverse local, state and national populations in the United States and around the world. In every case, standardized assessments are providing valuable data and information for revealing educational progress and achievement of individuals and communities and for indicating the need to improve education and educational outcomes overall and especially for some populations.

Dr. Michael T. NettlesDr. Michael T. Nettles

Standardized tests and assessments are designed to reflect what students know (knowledge) and can do (skills) relative to established standards and conditions. And at their best, they also measure social and emotional development. Most often test-takers’ performance is found to represent an accumulation of education, life experiences and quality of life. My colleagues and I have consistently found that quality of education in school, supplementary education before and after school, quality of life at home, doing homework and having access to and use of learning instruments and materials are associated with standardized test scores.

These are also factors associated with income and wealth, and partially explain inequalities in standardized test scores and the education status of communities. These background data and information combined with test scores constitute valuable holistic views of people and societies that decision makers can employ in the admissions processes to open access and opportunities. Holistic data and information can also be valuable for developing public policies aimed at improving education in local communities, states and nations. But, too often the full spectrum of data and information is not being used to make informed decisions.

Education leaders at selective institutions are facing enormous challenges as they seek to extend education opportunities to disadvantaged people while retaining their premium stature and ranking. Policymakers are similarly challenged in addressing economically disadvantaged communities that seek to gain ground in academic achievement. Compounding these challenges for educational institutions and for governments at all levels of society, is that these indicators of education quality and condition, including test scores, are also associated with persistent differences among race groups and the segregation of communities. So, while test scores can be a convenient lightning rod for discontent about inequality in education and admissions, test scores could be a rallying point for people coming together to address the underlying factors that require robust efforts to lead to change.

The measurement data yielded by these tests are invaluable among the milieu of data and information required to understand the complex issues that must be resolved on the path to advancing equity in education. Addressing such vital issues in education policy such as opportunity costs of education, debt burden and the predictive validity associated with large-scale standardized tests, requires credible data and information about education and tests. At ETS, we conduct research to address critical challenges in education including the epic inequalities in education, testing and assessments.

Succeeding will require educational, corporate and governmental institutions to collaborate to both generate the data needed to understand the challenges impeding educational progress and to decide how to use it for a more successful path forward. It is our shared responsibility to promulgate rational and feasible new ideas for change and improvement in a society growing in size, diversity and demand for education.

At ETS, we are on the journey and we are not alone. It is our collaborations with organizations such as the National Urban League and the Texas Association of Developing Colleges and many others that show us how to leverage test data and research toward gaining greater understanding of how equity and excellence might be informed and achieved via the use of transparent multiple measures, including high-quality, unbiased and appropriately administered standardized testing. ETS is committed to testing so that we can support the work of organizations around the country and the world with valuable data to connect learners to opportunities and improve education outcomes for everyone and especially those with the greatest need. We are equally committed to producing the highest quality assessments and identifying ways to eliminate geographic, income and race differences in education.

Dr. Michael T. Nettles is the senior vice president and the Edmund W. Gordon Chair of the Policy Evaluation & Research Center (PERC) at ETS. He is the recipient of the 2019 Dr. John Hope Franklin Award from Diverse.

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