Sell Schools, Not Test Scores

January 2000

Sell Schools, Not Test Scores

By Alfie Kohn

Everyone knows that buyers are attracted to neighborhoods with good schools.  But not everyone has had occasion to think about what makes schools good.   That’s why many realtors continue to assume – falsely – that high test scores are a positive sign.

To begin with, test scores closely parallel the income and educational level of the families who send their kids to a particular school.  Wealthier neighborhoods have higher scores for reasons that have little to do with what’s going on in the classroom – and thus it would be misleading to cite those scores as an indication of educational quality.

But that’s not the whole story.  Most standardized tests are held in low regard by qualified teachers.  What these tests measure is the temporary retention of low-level skills and soon-to-be-forgotten facts.  The questions are often multiple-choice, which means that students don’t have the chance to generate answers or explain their thinking.  They are timed, which means that speed matters more than thoughtfulness.  Many of them are “norm-referenced,” which means they are designed not to judge whether students know what they should, but solely to decide who is better than whom.   (Someone who is in the top 10 percent is not necessarily successful in absolute terms.)

Researchers have confirmed that very talented, hard-working students often do poorly on standardized tests, while some students who are superb test-takers tend to think superficially and don’t really understand why some of the right answers are right.  Moreover, terrific teaching can actually cause scores to go down, and terrible teaching can cause scores to rise – because the kind of instruction that is aimed at test preparation is very different from the kind of instruction that helps kids become critical, curious, creative thinkers.

Thus, when politicians or school officials brag about their standardized test scores, the proper reaction on the part of parents would be to say, “Frankly, if this is what you’re mostly concerned about, then I’m worried about the quality of schooling here.”  Of course, not all parents know enough to say this.  But are we unwittingly making things worse?  Every time a neighborhood is recommended on the basis of such scores, those dreadful tests gain a little more legitimacy and the schooling children receive becomes a little worse.  Not only is it foolish to sell houses on the basis of standardized test results, but it actually does damage.

The obvious question, then, is:  What can be used as a marker of good schools?  The easiest answer is size.  For many reasons, including but not limited to academic achievement, smaller schools are usually better.  Other answers may require a little more investigation on your part, as well as a recognition that the most meaningful indicators of quality can’t always be reduced to numbers.  The schools worth bragging about are those where students feel as though they’re part of a caring community, where even kindergartners get the chance to write stories, where the teachers create democratic classrooms so kids learn how to make good decisions, where the students can’t stop talking about the projects they get to do.

More:  If the local school has a philosophy where kids do hands-on learning instead of sitting in desks all day, where they learn in teams instead of alone, where parents are given qualitative accounts of kids’ improvement instead of traditional letter grades, then the chances are that school is something special.  If the teachers work hard to make sure students understand ideas from the inside out — instead of just memorizing facts – then people ought to be clamoring to live in that district.

So by all means, talk about the schools when you’re selling houses.  Just make sure you’re not using test scores to explain how good those schools really are.

Copyright © 2000 by Alfie Kohn. This article may be downloaded, reproduced, and distributed without permission as long as each copy includes this notice along with citation information (i.e., name of the periodical in which it originally appeared, date of publication, and author’s name). Permission must be obtained in order to reprint this article in a published work or in order to offer it for sale in any form. Please write to the address indicated on the Contact Us page. — © Alfie Kohn