School Testers Earn an F

Recently an organization called Colorado School Grades (CSG) set up a website,, inviting parents and others to compare “school performance” based on intensive standardized testing of students mandated under the Bush-Obama “No Child Left Behind” and “Race to the Top” programs. The CSG claims that “information and awareness of school performance leads to better schools for our kids.” Indeed, according to the designers of the massive testing program, its results should be used to reward, punish, or terminate schools based on their performance as measured by the tests.

zubrin_spreadsheet_1-28-14-1 High schools rankings in Jefferson County, Colorado.

So what do these results say? The CSG does not make it easy to find out, as they do not present the results, as they really should, in a comprehensive table which can be surveyed as a whole by those interested. Instead, they only reveal data in groups of at most four schools at a time in response to specific inquiries, which makes investigation of the results an exercise somewhat akin to trying to guess the location of enemy ships in the game of “Battleship.” However, based on repeated soundings, there does appear to be a pattern in the data, as may be seen above in representative results of high schools in Jefferson County, a place often viewed as a political and social microcosm of the state.

So, does this testing data, acquired at great expense in money and class time, tell us which schools are doing their job and which are performing poorly? Not at all. Rather, what really jumps out of the data is the extremely strong relationship between school rank and student family income. This correlation is so strong, that as shown in the “predicted rank” column of the table (my own invention, not to be found in the CSG data) it is possible to predict the rank of the school in advance with fair accuracy just by using a simple formula that multiples its percent of low income students by four and subtracts 20.

In short, what we have managed to learn is that the children of doctors and lawyers do better on standardized tests than the children of day laborers and welfare recipients. This raises an interesting question:

Why are we funding this program?

At a time when school funds are scarce, why are we wasting tens of millions of dollars per year in Colorado, and billions nationwide, not to mention close to twenty percent of classroom time, on such testing programs, only to find out nothing that we didn't know before? Does anyone actually believe that affluent suburban Evergreen H.S. students do better than slum neighborhood Jefferson H.S. students because of the superior quality of the school staff? If we switched school staffs, but kept the students in place, would the high scores move with the staffs or stay with the students? The teachers at the lower ranked schools are the front line troops of the melting pot. So, do we punish them because they are willing to take on that tough battle?

In the 1920s, the results of IQ tests given in English were used by eugenicists to argue that immigrants from southern and eastern Europe were genetically less intelligent than native-born Americans, and therefore should have their numbers cut in accord with such “scientific” thinking. The use of standardized test scores to evaluate “school performance” is a similar form of statistical fraud. Some of those pushing the mass testing initiative call themselves conservatives. Yet their methodology in setting collective quotas for educational performance and severe collective punishments for those who fail to meet them is more reminiscent of something out of a Stalinist five year plan than anything in the true American tradition.

Instead of terrorizing schools with punitive, time-devouring tests we should be trying to help them. The vast sums now being wasted nationwide on the Bush-Obama federally mandated mass testing programs and their accompanying armies of whip-snapping bureaucrats and overpaid bandit consultants could be better spent on initiatives that actually contribute to education. Instead of being drilled into dullness to meet the quotas of educational commissars, students need to have their minds enlivened with science fairs and Shakespeare fairs, history reenactments, and  debates on great issues.

America's schools have many problems. The government could help them a lot - by enacting policies that encourage economic growth and opportunity, and thereby incentivize learning. But the last thing they need is a bureaucratic inquisition that drives away talent, centralizes power, misappropriates resources, punishes dedication, suppresses initiative, narrows learning, and eliminates thought.