What's the point of testing if we can't see the results?

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Kevin Hesla

Renewed concerns over student privacy have led to an increasing amount of test score data being masked or suppressed across a number of states. While it is important for state agencies and schools to protect student privacy, these new rules make it harder for parents, educators, researchers, and advocacy organizations to have a clear picture of what is happening in the public education system. This can impede efforts to identify problems, to generate strategies for improvement, or to properly advocate for the most disadvantaged students.

Perhaps most critically, a lack of good data makes it far more difficult—or even impossible—to make comparisons across various school models or demographic groups, or to identify clear trends from year to year at the school level.

One example of new data masking and suppression rules comes from the Colorado Department of Education (CDE). Beginning with the 2014–15 PARCC results, CDE implemented new “complimentary suppression” rules that allow CDE to hide assessment results for small groups of students. At the same time that these rules were implemented, school level totals (which by definition are for larger groups of students) were also eliminated. This means that the majority of smaller schools have no publicly available test score data.

This practice continued with the 2015–16 PARCC results. Table 1 displays an excerpt from the 2015-16 math data file.

Table 1. Sample Data (Akron Elementary School)

Note: An asterisk denotes that the value for this field is “not displayed in order to ensure student privacy.”

Under Colorado law, when the number of records (in this case valid test scores) is less than sixteen, CDE is required to mask the data for the entire row. As Table 1 shows, this happened in grades three, five, seven, and eight.

However, CDE also currently implements “complimentary suppression” rules when the number of records associated with any particular cell (or subgroup) is less than four. These complimentary suppression rules are not required under Colorado law, but are instead the result of renewed concerns about student privacy from specific parent and legislator groups, as well as increased pressure from the Privacy Technical Assistance Center (PTAC) at the U.S. Department of Education. For Akron Elementary School, the fourth grade results show that five students met or exceeded expectations in 2015–16. However, the sixth grade results are suppressed because less than four students met or exceeded expectations. CDE does not provide any school level totals regarding proficiency rates—and by presenting the data by subject and grade level—they have greatly increased the number of rows with less than sixteen records and the number of cells with less than four records—meaning they’ve significantly increased the amount of suppressed data.

Data is a powerful tool that can help us understand and improve our public education system. I encourage all state and federal agencies to adopt creative methods for sharing school performance data with the public while simultaneously protecting student privacy. However, policies that mask and suppress data in a heavy-handed way defeat the entire purpose of our testing and accountability systems.

If parents, the general public, and various other stakeholders don’t have a true understanding of where we stand—what it is the point of spending all this time and money testing students and collecting data?

Kevin Hesla is the director of research and evaluation at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.