Abolish High-Stakes Testing

(Diane Ravitch reposted portions of this article on her education blog. You can check out her testing commentary there.)

In 2019, while Joe Biden was running his primary campaign, he indicated he’d work to end the high-stakes testing regime that has dominated public K-12 education since George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) into law in 2002. At MSNBC’s Public Education Forum, Denisha Jones asked Biden, “Given that standardized testing is rooted in a history of racism and eugenics, if you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools?” 

“Yes,” he answered without hesitation. “As one of my friends and black pastors I’ve spent a lot of time with, Reverend Herring, would say: You’re preaching to the choir, kid. OK?” Gesticulating passionately, Biden asserted that “teachers should be able to determine the curricula in their schools.” He pointed out that “teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know,” and that standardized testing simply “makes no sense.” He stressed that one of teachers’ most vital tasks is to help students build the confidence to persevere and take risks, suggesting that the exhaustive emphasis on high-stakes testing works against this aim. 

Yet as the ongoing pandemic offers our leaders an opportunity to rethink the test-and-punish system that has utterly failed to close the opportunity gaps it purportedly targeted, Biden’s team has opted to keep the federal testing requirement in place this spring rather than waiving it as Betsy DeVos did last year. Without waiting for Miguel Cardona to be confirmed as Education Secretary, the administration announced that assessments must proceed, although states can have more flexibility around how to administer tests and instrumentalize scores. This broken promise is a slap in the face to the educators, parents, scholars, and activists (including some of Biden’s allies) who have been calling for a pause or an end to the injurious testing mandate. 

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), the 2015 replacement for NCLB, students are required, at the minimum, to take standardized tests in English and math each year in grades 3-8 and once in high school. Many students are tested far more than that, with state- and district-mandated assessments and practice assessments sometimes beginning as early as preschool. Per the guidelines set by NCLB and reinforced with Obama’s Race to the Top (RTT) grant program, students’ test results go into “accountability formulas” used to sort children and discipline districts, schools, and individual teachers. 

While NCLB and RTT were marketed as efforts to strengthen public education for disadvantaged students, the overwhelming action of these reforms has been to redirect funding away from normal school operations in under-resourced districts, impose state takeovers and other dehumanizing restructuring plans, and replace community schools with privately run charters. The rampant school closures precipitated by NCLB and RTT have mainly impacted schools attended by the poor black and brown students who are used as mascots by those pushing these neoliberal “equity and accountability” measures.

The obsession with standardized testing has drained K-12 public education of the vibrant, joyful things that make kids want to be in school. Districts have been forced to cut art, music, extracurriculars, and recess in order to save time and money for tests and test prep. 

The Bill Gates-funded Common Core Standards that drive the current tests have undermined teachers’ creative autonomy, stripping us of our ability to shape instruction around what motivates our students. Instead of teaching whole novels and plays, language arts teachers are pushed into teaching mainly “informational texts” (as though fiction doesn’t contain information) and decontextualized literary excerpts. My students experienced Frankenstein, for example, not as a gripping monster story that prompts questions about what it means to be human, but as a lifeless fragment on a practice test, from which they were required to extract and regurgitate specific information that corporate test-makers deem important. 

When I taught high schoolers identified as having emotional and behavioral problems, I set up a choice reading program that my students and I were incredibly proud of. For ten minutes each class, students got a chance to read any book they chose. This small taste of academic agency felt good for my students, many of whom had been removed from their homes due to past truancy. Seventeen-year-olds with cultivated “cool kid” personas, committed to their identities as non-readers, began coming early to dive into stories by Kekla Magoon and Neil Gaiman. Their pin-drop silence was thrilling; it’s hard to get buy-in from kids who've been thoroughly convinced that school is not for them. When my administrator discovered the program, she shut it down. In order to raise their abysmal test scores, my students needed “bell-to-bell standards-based instruction.” 

This mindset is counterproductive and harmful. Students are told to fixate on agonizing tests in order to avoid being penalized and having themselves and their schools labeled deficient. Kids who face obstacles due to poverty and structural racism, especially, often assume they can’t do well on the tests, which are culturally biased and just plain confusing. There is very little transparency around how these tests are written and scored. Teachers sign agreements saying we will not look at test questions or discuss them with others if we do see them.

Spending all year drilling for tests you have little hope of excelling on is a profoundly demoralizing exercise. We are not teaching poor and minority children to go to school so they can use their unique brilliance to transform knowledge in realms of their choosing. We are not teaching them to be active participants in a democracy, questioning the nature of power and standing up for what they know is right. We are teaching them to passively accept government coercion. We are teaching them to endure abuse so they can be reductively defined as some percentage of “proficient.” We are teaching them to give up. 

When student test scores are tied to teacher evaluations, students are chillingly depicted as either “value-added” or not. Needless to say, the unfair pressure imposed on teachers, and the dehumanizing tendency to treat children as market shares rather than complex beings, amounts to a spirit-crushing weight of stress on the students we’re told are most vulnerable. Each year there are reports of kids throwing up and crying uncontrollably during testing season. 

Standardized tests do not measure teaching. Indeed, the premise that poor children struggle because their teachers are lazy is both racist (teachers of color are more likely to have low-income students) and illogical (why on earth would lazy people pursue positions in underfunded schools?). Contrary to claims, standardized tests don't measure the skills needed for fulfilling jobs requiring complex problem-solving (although the curiosity- and criticality-punishing accountability system unquestionably prepares kids for drudgery under capitalism). Standardized tests cannot account for the myriad forms meaningful learning can take. The only thing these assessments reliably measure is poverty.

The high-stakes testing regime is cruel in non-pandemic times. Inflicting this damaging ritual on kids who are experiencing the trauma of loss and increased deprivation is beyond inhumane. 

In poor and minority districts, students are much more likely to have lost caregivers and other loved ones to COVID-19. Millions of children do not have enough to eat or have families that cannot cover rent or household expenses. In addition to the many stressors they normally face, poor kids are dealing with the heightened precarity of their loved ones due to the impact of the pandemic on populations most at risk in our for-profit healthcare system. 

These factors, combined with the logistical nightmare of administering tests during a pandemic, have prompted national, state, and local groups, including teachers unions, to urge Biden and Cardona to waive assessment requirements this spring. According to polling from the University of Southern California, 64% of all parents (and 72% of black parents) supported cancelling testing as of October.

Even before the pandemic, decades of organizing and activism by teachers and parents had forced a bipartisan push to decrease the amount of time students spend taking tests, and remove the dangerous high stakes attached to test scores. Many colleges and universities are leading the way, proving that the world doesn’t stop turning when we retire the scantron. We have a clear opportunity to finally eliminate state assessments, and encourage districts to abandon the ruinous practices that proliferated in the wake of NCLB and RTT. Given Biden’s professed disdain for high-stakes testing, and Cardona’s track record of reducing the weight of test scores in teacher evaluations, it seemed like there was cause for hope. 

The first red flag came when the president filled key Department of Education roles with staff from the Gates Foundation (which has its tentacles in just about all aspects of education media and policy, and has promoted the most poisonous aspects of the neoliberal reform model) and the Democrats For Education Reform--two groups that have pushed standardized testing as a means to starve and privatize public education under the guise of ensuring equity. 

The announcement that testing must remain in place this spring came on Monday from Acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum, formerly Executive Director of The Education Trust-New York. EdTrust, which is funded by the philanthropic outfits of plutocrats like Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Michael Bloomberg, the Walton family, and others with an interest in shaping public education to the needs of capital, co-authored a pro-testing letter earlier this month with civil rights and pro-charter groups. The letter cites research from McKinsey and Company suggesting that the achievement gap is bad for GDP. Couching their plea in moving social justice language, the letter’s authors stress that, in order to “ensure that this pandemic does not undermine the futures of students across the country, we must collect accurate, objective, and comparable data that speaks to the quality of education in this moment.” 

This perennial refrain about needing data in order to reduce inequity is hollow and cynical. We do not need tests to tell us what has been obvious for generations: that poverty and systemic racism interfere with school-based learning; that in places where people are deprived of basic human rights, public education suffers. We do not need data to clarify the fact that the pandemic has hit poor kids the hardest, and that in communities where students lack consistent internet access, remote learning has exacerbated educational injustice. We do not need to shed light on this issue by administering abusive, illegitimate tests to children already burdened with grief and uncertainty. If Biden’s team is concerned about disparities, they should focus on infusing underfunded school systems with federal money. Following through on Biden’s pledge to triple Title 1 funding would be a great place to start. 

It’s true that some high-profile civil rights groups continue to push for standardized testing--a fact that is reported everywhere privatizers have clout. These civil rights organizations refer to the same “equity” logic Rosenblum invoked in his announcement. Unfortunately, many of these groups rely on funding from Gates and other pro-privatization philanthropists and corporations. This funding can mean a variety of things, but it’s reasonable to surmise that some degree of political alignment occurs. 

If standardized tests were actually about ensuring equity, they would not have triggered the closure of schools attended by low-income students of color. If the reforms that spawned these tests were actually about increasing accountability, they would not have occasioned the transfer of power over classroom learning from teachers and publicly accountable officials to hedge fund-backed charter-boosters and profit-hungry edu-businesses

Biden has advertised his capacity for empathy, born of his personal encounters with tragedy. He has stated that he wants to help America heal. He has also expressed awareness that high-stakes testing hurts kids, teachers, and schools--and he’s right. He should have trusted his gut on this one, waiving spring testing so students can focus on their survival and healing. Any serious plan to promote educational equity must begin with fully funding all schools, not forcing kids to take exhausting, demoralizing tests. Parents and teachers should seize every chance we have to contest this outrage. 

(Diane Ravitch reposted portions of this article on her education blog—you can check out her commentary there.)


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