Thursday, October 29, 2015

My students, my schools are not test scores!

This week, October 27, 2015, the Michigan Department of Education released summary results from the state assessment test that was taken in May.

(While not my focus here, it is important to note that as I write this it is October 29, 2015, and we have still not received district or school summaries for this state assessment. The state required this assessment and yet its relevance and its impact is obviously significantly limited because of the delay in returning results to the districts. But that is a discussion for another time.)

It was bad!

How bad?

The Michigan Department of Education felt compelled to release overall statewide results before allowing individual districts an opportunity to see building or district results. Preparing us and the public for bad news! In releasing these results the Michigan Department of Education press release tried to soften the blow by saying:

“With this all-new and more rigorous test, 
we expected statewide student scores to 
be lower than what we’d seen with the old MEAP tests. . .
In order to prepare our students for the careers of the 21st Century 
and to vault Michigan to become a Top Ten education state in 10 years, 
we need high standards and rigorous assessments
This year’s results set the new baseline from which to build."

Reading between the lines what this says is that we did bad but we expected that.

But it also says to me is that the Michigan Department of Education believes that what teachers and classrooms have been doing for the past several years has not been preparing students for 21st century careers and that our standards have been too low and certainly too easy.


We need to know if a child is learning. We need to know if a child has the ability to write, think, communicate, explain, and create. We need to make sure that the time spent in our schools and in our classrooms is preparing students for their future.

I do not want a school system that pushes students along without providing them with the skills and talents that they will need to live their lives fully and successfully.

Figuring out if students are learning and if students are prepared for their future is important.

But tests don't reveal everything that we need to know about a student.

There are people and organizations that believe that tests truly reveal everything there is to know about students and schools.

Those people and organizations are wrong!

Tests give us a slice of information. Tests give us one perspective. Test should be included in our conversation.

But there is so much more to our students and to our schools.

I visit classrooms and see teachers sit with students. I visit classrooms and hear the conversations between students and between students and teachers. I listen as students explain to me what they are doing. I watch as students struggle to understand and wrestle with complexity.

I see good things happening in these classrooms. I see dedicated teachers making a difference. I see students engaged in meaningful and important work.

These conversations, these struggles are not captured in a single test score. No matter how many experts with advanced degrees create the tests and how carefully the tests are constructed the tests do not reveal if a child will be successful.

I want meaningful conversations between parents and students to focus on whether or not students are developing passions and purpose, critical thinking skills, and the ability to create, communicate, and collaborate. And, for a minute or two, I would like the teacher and the parent to examine test scores to see what they add to the conversation.

We can and should use test scores to help us examine our practice. But test scores should not be the only piece of information that we deem worthy of examining.

Our Michigan test scores will be revealed to us at some point. There will be gnashing of teeth and wagging of fingers.

But my students, my teachers, and my schools are not test scores! 


  1. Dear Mr Mathews,
    My kid attends one of Novi schools and I agree your views to certain extent.
    But I see a complete reluctance from you to accept the fact that MI education board has no way other than running these tests to evaluate the school's performance.
    They literally cannot visit school by school to do their evaluation.
    Also you have to realize all MI board is trying to do is raising the standard of the schools. I know you are trying to do the same.
    So the intension/ final target is same for everybody.
    The more knowledge the kids acquire from schools, more they will be prepared to face the real world.
    But our entire school system evaluated based on test scores ( schools, colleges and universities).
    By declining to accept/adhere/ acknowledge tighter evaluations, I fear our kids might lose the competitive edge in getting into the top universities which in turn help them to contribute more to the world.
    But as you are doing already, we can definitely raise our concerns to MI board.
    Just my 2c.

    1. Finland only has one standardized test which is administered right before graduation from high school. They are one of the top countries when it comes to education. The US is failing students because too many politicians and business men are in charge of education instead of educators.

  2. Mr Mathews,
    Thank you for taking the test results and also the overall child development into consideration. In my view, you are absolutely correct in saying that scores are only part of the story. Overall child development of how they understand, interpret and apply the knowledge in their own way is very important. It is not easy to achieve such broader goals in today's competitive world focused on short term and narrow goals. I commend you for taking the path that can help a child develop to their individual full potential.

    I wish you all the best in your good efforts.

  3. I always believe that we brought kids to this world as parents. We should take our responsible for our own kids.
    I am sick to hear that we need more money, reduce class size, etc.
    If parents do not talk to kids about their homework and put sports above the school work their kids will have a failed records.
    Their attitude is a plan for their kids failure.

  4. Dr. Mathews,
    To follow on the above comments, and understanding you are also trying to head off a possible oncoming hail storm of parents screaming about why Novi only got xx score (Hopefully people will look at a more important thing which is how does Novi fall to other districts, the absolute score is not as important). I for one would be very interested in hearing how you would propose we evaluate schools and school districts.

    I think there is some Irony in a school or school district saying not to evaluate us just on test scores. Yet that is the sole measure the teachers use to grade their students. I don't have any solutions but get tired of reading the continuous objections to the system, without providing alternative solutions.

  5. This is a powerful statement:
    focus on whether or not students are developing passions and purpose, critical thinking skills, and the ability to create, communicate, and collaborate.

    I wonder if there is a study to see 5-10-15 years down the road what graduates are doing? If they feel successful. What about asking the students now if they feel prepared, or what they would appreciate training in...Wouldn't that help us navigate some of these questions. Of course then we could also open a conversation about what success is? Is it the size of your home, or the size of your family? Is it the amount you make, or the amount you give away? Is it your status and title that matters most, or the opinion of those who know you that count.

    Our country is dying for authentic people who are vulnerable and transparent. Do we teach our children character, nobility, honesty and compassion? When a person can, as you said: develop passion and purpose, critical thinking skills, and the ability to create, communicate, and collaborate, I think they have achieved what we all desire - wholeness and community.

    Keep up the good work, your on the right path and we need leaders who can balance these issues and value the person over the performance; and create leaders who feel the same!

  6. Echoing on the views of the first commenter, if test scores are what play a major role in a student's future educational choices, then it is important to focus on what can be done to raise these test scores. It is not a secret that we severely as a country lag behind the rest of the world in education. One solution is to adopt differentiation to cater to the diverse needs of student body. This is a definite lag in our school system.

  7. I agree to a few things that you have mentioned here, Sir. But I don't agree to see the results from the tests as just "hogwash". If the results or the tests do not potray the real picture, then what is the parameter to measure the quality of education that our kids receive? When admission to schools become competitive, (admissions will be based on test scores and not what they did in class), will our kids be abe to stand out?

    We have excellent programs at the schools. I wish teachers and parents step up their game in overlooking academics, along with the programs already in place. You are a good leader, Sir, and i urge you to make your voice heard in the upper levels, to bring Novi schools to its former glory...

  8. Dr. Matthews,

    I agree with you entirely. Under common core and insidious and pervasive standardized testing, product has completely eclipsed process. As the parent of a student at Novi High School, I am disturbed to see how my daughter can receive 100% on 6 rigorous homework assignments, yet have her letter grade drop by two letters if she happens to do poorly on one assessment due to weighting of grades. This is akin to a school band that puts in months hard work preparing for the concert, yet, because of the nature of live music and human fallibility, does not perform perfectly at the concert. Do we say that the band is a failure and negate all of the hard work that the students did preparing for the concert?

    It must be part of any intelligent discourse on standardized assessment that outliers can ruin a performance or bring down aggregate standardized test scores. Does the fumble at the end of the recent UM/MSU game mean that Michigan is a bad team? No - an outlier on the team caused the loss.

    If a particular district has a higher percentage of special education or ESL students, it is only reasonable to expect that aggregate test scores will be skewed lower for the district as a whole. Are you allowed under IDEA to send these students off to a lonely island so your aggregate test scores do not suffer? Of course not - nor should you! Public education is for ALL students. Like Forrest Gump said, "Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you're gonna get." Have you seen "unsuccessful teaches from Detroit come to wealthy suburban districts and experience success? Of course you have. It is much more expedient to blame teachers for low student achievement rather than address the underlying issues contributing to this low achievement, such as poverty and broken homes.

  9. This is a continuation of my previous post since I was limited to a certain number of characters:

    Does the failure of certain students to achieve high scores on a 'cookie cutter' test biased toward students without disabilities, that are fluent in English, and has no consideration for low socio-economic students and the well documented academic struggles they deal with mean that these subgroups of students, which pull down the aggregate district scores, are failures? Absolutely not! Most of these students are doing the best they can with the skills they bring to the testing room. There is a reason why the International Academy in Bloomfield Hills will undoubtedly have excellent scores whenever the Great and Powerful Oz (the MDE) gets their act together and releases scores to individual school districts. It's because the International Academy can cherry pick their students!

    Standardized tests that do not take into account the percentage of "at risk" students are are dubious in value at best and invalid at worst. There are certainly other ways to assess students, such as emphasizing process over product, authentic assessment, or wholistic measurement; however, such alternative assessments would require too much effort and expense on the part of the MDE and the DOE. Quick, dirty, and cheap is the way to get things done in the infinite wisdom of those that hold the purse strings for public education.

  10. ...and my final installment due to character limits per post...

    This mantra is reflected in the MDE's decision to switch to the SAT instead of continuing the use of the ACT - because SAT came in with a lower bid and the state requires and picks up the tab for this junior year testing in order for students to graduate. How will making this switch to the SAT help districts improve best practices when years of longitudinal data from the ACT is thrown to the curb and a new baseline is established with the unknown commodity of the "new SAT" is foisted upon them.

    Arne Duncan has done quite a number on public schools with his "Race to the Top." I am glad he is gone. Too bad public education now seems to be a "Race to the Bottom" which is only exacerbated by misguided anti-public education propaganda campaigns such as the state releasing 'dismal overall scores,' which, when done often enough, will become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    To be sure, if one is going to identify a problem, one must be prepared to offer solutions. I am curious as to what your suggestions are for measuring student growth in an accurate manner and across all subgroups without excessive reliance on biased and economically expedient standardized assessments. There must be a better way. Why don't we do some benchmarking against nations with the highest educational outcomes and the least standardized testing such as Finland and institute these educational policies in our country? Nah - too much work and money- and we'd have to do something about that darned socio-economic inequality thing. That would not be in the best interest of those attempting to decimate the middle class. Why were our school the best in the free world back in the 30's, 40's and 50's, and now we are a laughing stock? This was preventable, but creating inequalities helps certain segments of society - even if those segments say they want public schooling in our country to be on par with schools in countries such as Finland, South Korea - or even Canada

    Unfortunately, all we get from the state is lip service and public school bashing in order to redirect public money for private profit in the form of charter school creation and online learning. I don't think much needs to be said about the success rate of such reckless thinking. It is clear to me that students in the US are indeed falling behind those of other advanced nations; however, I believe this is by design. I refuse to accept the notion that this phenomenon is the fault of teachers or administrators, since they are now forced to teach a "canned curriculum," vital educational measures such as effort and creativity are no longer valued, and we have the greatest income inequality since the Gilded Age with politicians denying any correlation between socio-economic status and intact families with educational outcomes.

    Capitalism and democracy do not make good bedfellows, and if we allow those responsible for making the decisions with regard to public education continue down this destructive road, we will see our nations students fall further and further behind other advanced, industrialized nations that truly value public education, both in words and action.

    1. I agree with you. I'll call you B, since you have an orange B next to your Anonymous name. It's imperative to understand the effect that poverty has in a kids ability to succeed. This is why we have lunch programs for hungry kids in schools. Dr. Mathews works very hard at keeping Novi Public Schools great. Our legislators in Lansing keep chopping away at public school funding and promoting Charter Schools. If Charter Schools had to abide by the same rules, that would be one thing. Unfortunately they don't. The schools-for-profit is truly not working. Our Novi schools are excellent and I know that they are learning a lot more than what an assessment test shows.

    2. Thanks, Colleen. I agree that the Novi Community School District does an excellent job in spite of the barrage of barriers the state throws at it.I certainly wouldn't want Dr. Matthews job and I applaud him for calling out the MDE for their destructive approach toward public school governance. They are saying one thing and doing another and the lemmings are buying into the rhetoric. Combine that with the elimination of tenure and low pay for new teachers, and it is easy to see why the future of public schooling in our state looks quite grim. And we haven't even touched on inequality of income and opportunity... Nonetheless, I'm sure the 1% that attend and graduate from schools such as Cranbrook, Detroit Country Day, Roeper, and the like will lead the way to brighter outcomes for public education students - or at least themselves.


  11. Sorry for the spelling and grammatical errors in the three previous posts. It is pretty tough to accurately proof-read when you are typing text into a very small box.

  12. Dr. Matthews, I attended the Parent-to-Parent book club with you at Novi Library this past week and very much enjoyed it. I feel strongly that the current emphasis on standardized testing is NOT preparing our children for the future. I, for one, know my children and have a relationship with their teachers. I don't need a test score to tell me how my kids are doing -- I can determine that through being involved in their lives and communicating with their teachers. My goal for my children is NOT for them to be able to memorize facts and choose the correct answer on a multiple choice test. It is for them to love learning, to make mistakes and have the chance to learn from those mistakes, to be unafraid to challenge themselves and try new things, to be open to others' ideas and to grow into the amazing people that they are meant to be. I want a school system that supports them in these goals and from listening to you at the book club, I think that's what you want too. Thank you. For all of the commenters asking Dr. Matthews how he plan to evaluate students and teachers, I'd encourage you to register the the November Parent-to-Parent book club where we'll be discussing the book "Creative Schools" with Dr. Matthews!

  13. Dear Dr. Matthews,

    First of all, thanks for your post.
    I would like to address couple of things regarding your posting.

    1. Even though test scores may not be important to you, but unfortunately it is the measure of a school standard - like the way one sports team or person is being measured based on a tournament data.

    2. I see a tremendous encouragement on sports but no appreciation or acknowledgement for an individual who is excelling academically. Unless the current view is changed, academic success will not be possible.

    3. NCSD offering high level maths for capable middle-school kids is really great. But, the teachers who are teaching high school math are not capable or competent enough based on my couple of years experiences. This can be very risky for the students as they are NOT getting good guidance to build the math fundamentals. You must accept this kind of messages from the parents for the betterment of the students in Novi.

    4. If the fundamentals are taught correctly and the class tests/quizzes demand proper explanatory answers rather than multiple choice type questions, the NCSD students will flourish no matter what test they take.
    If the test scores (as a school) are bad, it does reflect that the fundamentals are NOT taught properly.

    5. It has been observed that you always keep your coffee-with-parents-meetings in the morning of the weekdays. Many parents like me cannot attend your meetings to discuss issues freely. If you can keep some meetings in the evenings that would be appreciated.
    Thank you.

  14. While I understand and agree that tests do not show everything about a student. You can't see critical thinking or if a student has test anxiety. Yet Novi High School only recognizes test and quiz scores for a child's grade. A bit of a contradiction, don't you think?

  15. Dr. Matthew,

    The community would appreciate it if you use your blog as an opportunity to establish a dialogue with parents - not merely a chronicle of your thoughts.

    Please use this opportunity to respond to the questions raised by the people who took the time to read your blog entry if you truly wish to promote awareness of and intelligent discourse regarding K-12 educational issues.

  16. Any district test scores yet, or did Lansing have to shut off the power to their computers in order to afford for the reallocation of the majority of the General Fund to fix our crumbling roads?

  17. Why is it that NHS only recognizes test and quiz scores now? Is it a Common Core mandate? Is process irrelevant while product reigns supreme? That certainly does not promote creativity or higher order thinking skills...

  18. I suggest that every parent read the work of Charlotte Thomson Iserbyt.

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