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)


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