Photo: Magnolia School District
Magnolia School District students pose following a "Bohemian Snow White" performance at Juliette Low School of the Arts.

Historically underserved students often are used as the basis of a rationale that academic performance test scores are unimportant because they measure wealth rather than academic progress.

Frank Donavan

Frank Donavan

We reject that belief in the Magnolia School District.

By focusing on test scores, we are giving our students a rigorous education with high expectations. We believe that this allows students to aim high without settling for less than they are capable of achieving. Test scores provide a means for comparison and an opportunity to show growth.

The view that deems test scores not useful often leads to the belief and practice that subgroups, particularly Hispanic, African American and socio-economically disadvantaged students, are not capable of achieving at high levels. That, in turn, leads to lower expectations and lower levels of student achievement.

Our students’ high achievement not only shatters stereotypes and disproves the idea that these students are academically deficient because of their family background, it opens doors that otherwise might be closed.

Our focus on test scores is a matter of equity and access.

As educators, we know that test scores — much like graduation rates and college acceptance rates — are only one measure of a student. But test scores can also be used to dispel stereotypes and discourage the harmful practice of grouping students by abilities.

The district I lead, Magnolia School District in Anaheim, is a K-6 district. For many years, we have experienced growth in academic achievement as measured by state test scores.

The district demographics are:

  • 72 percent Hispanic.
  • 84 percent economically disadvantaged (eligible for free or reduced-price school lunch).
  • 47 percent English learners.

Yet, as the charts below shows, we continue to score above the state average for our subgroups in both English language arts and math:

We use these scores to understand the growth we have made and what we need to do to continue our upward trajectory in student achievement.

But we don’t teach to the test. We focus on the whole child, as evidenced by our music and arts programs, our comprehensive social emotional learning programs that foster skills to help students cope with everyday challenges and our innovative use of technology that has one computer for every child and an interactive whiteboard for every teacher.

However, the efficacy of our innovative programs is difficult to measure and/or compare, so we look to our state test scores to guide our next steps.

Contrary to the view that sociologically disadvantaged students are also academically disadvantaged, research tells us that student subgroups can achieve at very high levels.

A 2019 study from the Learning Policy Institute, California’s Positive Outliers: Districts Beating the Odds, identified 54 school districts, including Magnolia, which had unusually high achievement for their Hispanic, African American and white students.

“Positive outlier districts appear to have leveraged the state’s updated educational standards, funding, and accountability systems to support students of color in meeting the more rigorous standards,” stated the researchers.

While the researchers looked at many factors that contributed to the districts’ success, state test scores were used to measure academic achievement.

When we reduce our focus on test scores, we run the risk of losing focus on our disadvantaged students. Our high expectations, rigorous academics and attention to test scores have resulted in improved grades, attendance and acceptance rates into specialized and prestigious junior high, high school and college programs.

•••

Frank Donavan, Ed.D., is the superintendent of the Magnolia School District, which serves students in pre-kindergarten through sixth grade in areas of West Anaheim, Stanton and Buena Park (Orange County).

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  1. Dr. Bill Conrad 2 months ago2 months ago

    It is so refreshing to read an article in support of assessments! Such a change from all the rage against thermometers that tend to fill the media! We need to work to combat assessment illiteracy. Jim Popham, emeritus professor from UCLA, once gave a talk to a group of esteemed psychometricians where he said that all of them were going to hell for their inability to improve assessment literacy among the K-12 educators! The spew … Read More

    It is so refreshing to read an article in support of assessments! Such a change from all the rage against thermometers that tend to fill the media!

    We need to work to combat assessment illiteracy. Jim Popham, emeritus professor from UCLA, once gave a talk to a group of esteemed psychometricians where he said that all of them were going to hell for their inability to improve assessment literacy among the K-12 educators! The spew of egg salad sandwiches was impressive. Jim told them that they might go to purgatory if they immediately begin to inform the K-12 assessment illiterate population of the role of assessments in education. The psychometricians of course failed the test and now will end up going to hell for all of their assessment transgressions!

    Here’s also hoping that we can build upon quality student assessments and begin to assess adult professional practices to ensure that these aligned practices are of the highest quality because consistent and system-wide high quality professional practices will most certainly lead to high quality student performance as well!

    Let’s hope that the kids can figure this one out as the adults in the system never will!

  2. Dan Plonsey 2 months ago2 months ago

    Still, we can use algebra to calculate that your non-Hispanic kids are outperforming Hispanic kids at rates of 69% to 48% in ELA, and 68% to 39% in math, so a typically large gap exists at your school. I'm glad that you value music and the arts. But your claim that your higher than average test scores are proof that test scores are a valid measure of academic success because your test scores are higher … Read More

    Still, we can use algebra to calculate that your non-Hispanic kids are outperforming Hispanic kids at rates of 69% to 48% in ELA, and 68% to 39% in math, so a typically large gap exists at your school. I’m glad that you value music and the arts. But your claim that your higher than average test scores are proof that test scores are a valid measure of academic success because your test scores are higher than average is not a proof, but a tautology. Furthermore, many schools have adopted the “innovations” you cite, yet with mixed results.