Hiding test results behind privacy curtain

By Baker City Herald Editorial Board August 10, 2011 07:19 pm

In the decade since President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, schools across the nation have amassed reams of results from the standardized tests that the federal law requires.

Education officials emphasize how important it is that schools make those results readily accessible to the public.

Susan Castillo, Oregon’s superintendent of public instruction, made just that point during an interview with the Baker City Herald’s editorial board a couple weeks ago.

Castillo’s department makes available through its website the test results from every public school in Oregon.

Castillo describes this as “transparency.”

But the view seems rather murky to us.

The lack of clarity is due to the inherent nature of statistics.

We know, for instance, that almost 73 percent of Baker Middle School students met the new, tougher standards for the math test during the 2010-11 year. That exceeds the 70 percent goal in the law.

Yet that 73 percent figure is the average for 272 students.

The reports reveal nothing about how any of those students performed individually.

Which leaves the public to wonder whether most students scored close to the 73-percent average, or whether one small percentage of students did much better and another, similarly sized group fared much worse (were “left behind,” to borrow from the former president).

Obviously those two scenarios indicate vastly different levels of success at the school, even though the end result — a 73-percent average — could be identical.

The potential obstacle to making test results truly transparent is, of course, the issue of students’ privacy.

A federal law protects students’ personal information. We agree with that.

But so long as students are listed by number rather than by name, there’s no reason that individual test results can’t be disclosed without infringing on students’ privacy.

The Herald, in researching allegations of cheating on tests at the Middle School during 2009 and 2010, recently asked the state Department of Education to supply individual test results for all students for those years, with their names redacted.

State officials denied our request, citing privacy.

We’ll continue to seek those results, and for two main reasons.

First, without the ability to compare the test scores of all students, it’s difficult for us, or anyone, to put into context the seemingly anomalous results from a handful of the 30 or so BMS students whose scores the Herald has obtained.

Second, and more important, those comprehensive results allow the public, whose tax dollars pay for schools, to truly gauge the progress of all students in the federally required assessment tests.

Full disclosure, with students’ names withheld to protect their identity, is the only way to ensure that neither the achievements of the top-scoring students, nor the difficulties of their classmates who struggle, will remain hidden behind the curtain of statistical averages.