Standardized testing requirements have been a lightning rod for controversy. Critics argue the tests are a distraction for teachers and disproportionately penalize BIPOC and other students from low-income families, and the pandemic has only heightened concerns about inequities in the classroom. With such strong feelings surrounding standardized testing, it’s no surprise that the Department of Education’s announcement that testing would resume this year was met with an immediate outcry.
For many education activists, the decision to resume standardized testing confirmed their suspicions about the Biden administration’s lack of commitment to creating equity in education. During the 2020 election cycle, educator and organizer Dr. Denisha Jones asked then-candidate Joe Biden if he would end standardized testing if elected, outlining concerns about the deprofessionalizing of teaching, penalizing schools and students based on results, and the reality that tests are rooted in eugenics. Biden agreed, stating that “teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know,” and that it “made no sense.”
“I didn’t believe him at the time,” Jones said. “He did what politicians do—said what I wanted to hear and then rambled.”
Jones’ skepticism was justified. In February after the Department of Education made the test announcement, the department had to shut down phone lines because of the number of calls they were receiving. More than 70 national and local organizations and hundreds of deans signed letters urging Biden not to reinstitute testing until further review of its effects and utility for marginalized students could be conducted. However, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona recently confirmed that testing will happen this year.
Federal law mandates states must test subjects from 3rd grade through high school, with consequences if the participation is below 95%. States have to report how students perform with breakdowns by race and income. The administration and supporters argue that this will reveal how much students have—or haven’t—learned this year.
However, educators and activists believe the results will only worsen inequalities in a deeply problematic system, rather than provide any substantial insight into what students learned over the past year. Former educators Rep. Jamaal Bowman and President of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten wrote in an op-ed that they understand why tests exist, but “standardized testing this year will not reliably gauge student performance or identify areas in need of growth.”
Students are currently experiencing a huge variance in education, with some in the classroom, some remote, and some using a hybrid learning model. White and wealthier students are attending in-person school at a higher rate than lower-income students and Black and brown students. Wealthier parents also have hired tutors, while other students are completely disconnected and left to struggle on their own. A recent survey found that more than 20% of households lack reliable access to a digital device, and 25% of households don’t have dependable access to the internet.
The pandemic, natural disasters, and extreme weather exacerbate these disparities. Black, brown, and low-income communities are simultaneously being hit hardest by COVID-19 and infrastructure issues like loss of water, internet service, and power. Many parents don’t have the option for working remotely or becoming a full time stay-at-home parent. As a result, students often have to learn on their own and some students are finding themselves supporting younger siblings while trying to keep up with their own schoolwork.
Even supporters of standardized testing have concerns about the test-taking process and how the results will be used.
“The COVID-19 pandemic and associated school building closures have presented logistical challenges to giving assessments, and how states collect student learning data may look different this year,” said the Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit representing public officials department heads, in a press statement in February.
Bob Schaeffer, executive director of FairTest, a nonprofit organization that advocates for better forms of assessment than tests, believes the chaos of the past year means test results will be meaningless.
“There are so many assumptions of testing; that it’s measuring something that students have had an equal opportunity to learn in similar ways,” Schaeffer said. “In this pandemic year, there is no standardization for learning.”
Those assumptions made tests a hotly debated topic, even before the pandemic. Ismael Jimenez, an educator in the Philadelphia School District, described standardized testing as a “continuation of eugenics-type thinking applied to education.”
“The origin [of standardized testing] is to weed out who is able and who is not,” Jimenez said. “It’s ethnocentric in one group. Socioeconomics is then the number one indicator, and outcomes fall along racial lines.”
Every state uses results in different ways, but they can determine which schools get funding and which are closed, which teachers should face pay cuts or receive bonuses, and which students should face intensive programs. This year’s results could be used to further penalize poor communities.
Tests are biased from the start, and Black, brown, and low income students often test more poorly than their peers. Test results being tied to students’ perceived value and potential is often detrimental, especially for marginalized students. Test scores can determine or influence a student’s ability to move to higher grades, class placement, scholarship opportunities, graduation eligibility, and acceptance in some higher education programs.
“If there’s one test that everyone has to take, regardless of their interest or experience, that will default to the dominant culture,” said Jackson Potter, a teacher in Chicago. “It reproduces the class and race dimensions we currently have. Results are a constant reminder: you can see which communities have been invested in, who lives there, and why their lives are valued.”
Potter’s school is primarily Latinx, one of the communities experiencing the highest rates of COVID-19 cases. His students are experiencing the trauma of death and loss and he worries about what the added stress of testing will do.
“I have students who are hospitalized or experiencing chronic depression,” Potter said. “We need a whole different approach to what will help families and communities.”
Critics also point out how standardized tests don’t take into account student experience because they come from private interests, not educators. The industry is a multibillion-dollar one, with a handful of private companies administering and grading all exams. President George W. Bush mandated testing in 2001 and it is estimated that states spend $1.7 billion a year on testing. Two years without testing could destroy the industry.
Instead of supporting corporations or standardized data to analyze students, experts say it’s time to focus on students themselves. More comprehensive assessments like portfolios, discussions with counselors, and community-based programs that develop local standards which take into account circumstances would be more holistic and accurate. Advocates are still determined to press the administration and schools to reconsider the role of standardized testing and explore more equitable and less stressful alternatives.
In the meantime, states are applying for waivers from the federal government to legally exempt students from testing or parts of testing laws. Responses from the Department of Education are mixed. Full testing waivers were rejected, but some states like Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Oregon, and Montana recently received approval for certain exemptions. The exemptions vary, but include reducing the number of students who are required to take tests, the number of tests administered, and which grades students are tested.
However, other states are awaiting responses. Many argue that the true power to affect change and center students’ needs may lie with parents, including a growing movement to opt out of testing entirely.
“Parents have the power in their hands to determine what happens this year,” Schaeffer said. “They should let their federal and state officials know about their concerns that testing should be waived. Failing that, parents need to opt their kids out of testing.”
More than half of universities have committed to not requiring test results. In many states, taking tests is not required. In others, opting out of the tests it is an act of civil disobedience, but for many parents and educators, their priority is students’ welfare, not their test scores.
“I can’t think of any time better than a raging pandemic to put your child first,” Jones said.
This article was made possible in part through a grant from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.