The context of test scores

As a simple consumer of news, I am easily confused. Take education, for example. Stories about test results in Minnesota are starting to become an instant turn-off.

Take the last few months of test-score stories from MPR.

More Minnesota schools not meeting standards

New science test scores show improvement

Some improvement, but Minnesota test scores mostly flat

Latest school test scores show improvement

Just give it to me straight: Are our kids smart or aren’t they?

Of course it’s all in the packaging. One person’s “improvement” can be another’s “not quite as abysmal as we used to be.” But over the “testing season,” the message has generally been that we’re relatively mediocre in the big scheme of things. And we can quibble over whether “proficient” is a synonym for “smart.”

That’s why today’s headline caught me a bit by surprise:

Minn. students rank highest among ACT takers

How does this fit with the take-away so far? I posed the question to MPR’s education reporter, Tom Weber:


The ACT is a voluntary test, presumably taken by those students who most want to go to college and get a good enough score to attain acceptance to a school. So, what these scores show us is that – within that population of students, Minnesotans score well – and they’re scoring better than even last year’s crop of Minnesotans scored.

Ed Colby, with the ACT, pointed out that the test is “not just about how prepared they are for college – but also how well they’ve learned what they’ve already been taught.”

The other stories we’ve been reporting about in recent weeks are all tied to a different test, the MCA-II, which is mandatory. 100% of Minnesota kids (or just about 100%) took the MCA’s, only 68% took the ACT.

But even on MCA test, scores were either flat or higher compared to last year. So, if you want to combine all the test stories into one thought, there’s a pattern that suggests students in Minnesota are improving their scores, albeit only slightly in some cases.

Here’s a screen grab from and ACT report with some more info that wasn’t in my story – it’s how Minnesota has performed over the past five years on the test; notice all scores are higher from year to year and consistently above the national average. (click the image to see a larger view)

act-scores.jpg

Finally, here is a link to a sample ACT test to try your skills at home.

  • http://davincidad.wordpress.com/2009/07/23/lies-damn-lies-and-statistics/ John Armstrong

    It reminds me a lot about stories about the economy. Depending on who is telling the story and what information they choose to look at, things are getting better, holding steady, getting worse slower than expected (which is viewed as “getting better”), et cetera ad nauseum.

    I have always found it unfortunate that we attach so much importance to these standardized tests. From what I remember about them from school, is that they don’t show what you’ve learned as much as you’ve learned how to take this type of test. I recall that the week before we were to take the Iowa Basic Skills Test many lessons would be put on hold just to teach us strategies for taking the test. SAT and ACT test-prep “classes” still do the same thing. But with everyone’s need for numbers as proof of performance, I don’t see a better solution.

  • CaliGuy

    Minnesota ranks #1 on another educational measure. Sure makes you wonder what Gov. Timmy is talking about with regard to education most of the time.

    Our schools are some of the finest — if not THE finest — in the nation. It would sure be nice if media outlets in this state would tout the status of educational system more and pay attention to poorly written PR statements coming from the Governor’s office on the topic of education.

    Our state is known nationwide for our high educational standards. Let’s support our students AND our teachers AND our administrators AND our school boards for this most recent, and other similar, accomplishments.

  • kennedy

    @ Caliguy – Lake Wobegon is alive and well.

    All is not rosey with education in Minnesota. My kids’ school just failed a measurement in the “No Child Left Behind” program. The measurement was percent of students meeting proficiency on standardized tests.

    I guarantee that this year every teacher will be focused on getting the failing/marginal students to pass that test. Students who are proficient or excelling will get short shrift.

  • Lynn K

    I took both the SAT and ACT when I was in high school. In class, they would only emphasize to us on taking the SATs. (I’m from the West Coast.) I had no intention on taking the ACT until I found out that some of the schools in Minnesota and other parts of the midwest only accepted ACT scores. A lot of my college classmates who were from Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota, etc. only took the ACT. So it’s no surprise that Minnesotans score among the highest in ACTs. I don’t think it’s a fair assessment in a national sense.