Rebecca Rider column: Bare bones

Published 12:00 am Thursday, September 1, 2016

It’s test score day. The day the nail biting can end, and the day that parents and teachers can release that breath they’ve been holding since June.

More than likely, the results will be available before many of you read this column — assuming you’re a read your paper after dinner kind of person, that is. So for you, the wait will already be over. You’ll know, and you’ll move on with your life.

Perhaps the results will surprise you, or perhaps they’ll cement whatever preconceived notion you have about your school, or the system at large. I know how it works: you pick up the paper, or visit the website, or watch the video or pull the information from the state — but somehow, you get it.

You scan the list, looking for your school, and focus in on that seemingly all-important letter grade. And then you sigh, or smile, and move on. So I have something to say to you: don’t judge by appearances.

This is my first year covering education, which means it’s also my first year covering test scores. And there is far more to each than meets the eye.

Test scores are simplified, reduced, glimpses of what happens inside of a school — and unfortunately, there is such a thing as simplifying something too much. If you boil something down to bare bones, it can be almost unrecognizable. A skeleton, for instance, bears very little resemblance to a person.

The same is true of test scores. They can’t tell you the burdens students carry to class with them, the endless hours of study and worry, the breakthroughs when a student finally — finally — understands a concept or the miracles a teacher can work in the classroom.

At best, test scores are a temperature check — they can tell you symptoms, but they can’t solve the problem. So that’s what we’ll be releasing today: a temperature. While we provide as much and varied information as we can, bound by space limits and the lack of a graduate degree in education, it could never really be anything else.

So if a school is underperforming, that doesn’t mean that it’s lacking good, dedicated teachers who are fighting tooth and nail for their students. That doesn’t mean that it’s lacking programs and that staff aren’t exhausting themselves trying to provide programs and opportunities. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have parents who sacrifice time and money to support their school. That doesn’t mean that it’s lacking in bright, eager students with big dreams.

And if a school is excelling, that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in struggles. It just is what it is.

The numbers and letters released today do not tell the story of each school. You can’t fit days and weeks and months (and in some cases, years) of hard work, and failures and successes, stops and starts, hopes and dreams and tears and jubilation into a single letter, or number — or indication of how many students are “college and career ready.” It does not tell the full story. It is a temperature, nothing more. A skeleton is not a person, and a picture of the sky is not the sky itself.

So I would ask that you keep this in mind as you flip through test scores today — or next year, or the year after that. I would ask that you get to know your school, and get to know its story, as I’m learning to. I think you’ll find that it’s something vibrant and powerful and worthy of being seen and far, far more than could ever fit into a single (if lengthy) report.


Contact education reporter Rebecca Rider at 704-797-4264 or