The myth of standardized testing becomes an attack on public education during a pandemic

Education

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos wants to enforce testing standards this year as if it were just any year. Any year, that is, since the war on teachers and public schools reached its fever pitch in the early 2000s, under the guise of quality control.

With its passage in 2002, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) brought with it the rise of K-12 standardized testing as a means of teacher evaluation. Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), designed to loosen the stranglehold of test-based evaluation, did little on that front. ESSA relied on testing to evaluate teachers and schools and justified the aggressive movement toward private and charter systems.

For an intensive breakdown of the wild contradictions in the world of high-stakes testing, check out educator and experience curriculum designer Bob Shepherd’s great piece on the staggeringly low quality of these tests. In a recent mini-poll sent to The Children’s Network here First Focus on Children, 80% said students should not be tested this year.

The purpose of testing is to reduce learning to something objective that can be maximized under the guise of productive efficiency. That doesn’t make sense in a year where, in the face of crisis, students and educators are working to find new ways to learn. Standardized tests are not flexible and cannot provide us a true measure of how kids are learning or developing. Even before the crisis, the same teacher might score in the top percentile and bottom percentile in the same year, on the same test, for different classes.

In reality, testing provides the justification for an attack on teachers. The tidal wave of tests, and their evaluation systems, coincided with the greatest teaching crisis in the history of our public education system. Derek Black, the author of Schoolhouse Burning and professor of constitutional law at the University of South Carolina, points out that between 2009 and 2012 schools lost 300,000 teaching positions. As the effects of the pandemic resonate, advocates fear that up to 2 million education jobs could be lost. A host of factors – punitive evaluations based on testing, a dearth of school resources and support, and the coordinated devaluation of teaching as a profession – is to blame for what has become a shortage of teachers.  

“Standardized” testing is anything but. From year to year, Black explains, teachers may go from being considered extremely effective to being considered ineffective, with little difference in teaching practice. He writes:

“Isolating one teacher’s effect on a student’s scores from the effects of all the other teachers a student had that year (and in prior years) is nearly impossible. Isolating the effects of teaching from those important factors that exist outside school – poverty, family crisis, parental engagement – is just as hard.”

These tests – which are highly biased against non-white students, ineffective at quantifying student engagement, and disconnected from any concept of critical thinking – have leapfrogged curriculum. Instead of demonstrating effective curriculum, post hoc, it informs curriculum from its inception. Shepherd writes in Combating Standardized Testing Derangement Syndrome (STDs) in the English Language Arts:

“The tests drive how and what people teach and much of what is created by curriculum developers. These distortions are grave. In U.S. curriculum development today, the tail is wagging the dog. To an enormous extent, we’ve basically replaced traditional English curricula with test prep.”

Testing looks to create a tangible object out of the process of learning. Learning, by nature, is flexible. It changes, bends, and warps over time. Today, K-12 education has become the servant of a rigid test. We’re asked to accept a dubious claim: a collection of multiple-choice questions are the key to evaluating teachers and schools, or at least enough to make important decisions on which students and schools deserve adequate funding. But the soul of education doesn’t lie in rote testing ability or data retention. To learn is to actively engage with the world; to teach is to encourage the growth of those who seek to change it. Tests don’t tell that story.

In the wake of the coronavirus crisis, teachers are adapting to a new teaching environment. They are working to build remote relationships with their students while adjusting their pedagogical practices to a wildly different setup, whether they are physically back in school or not. Students, too, are learning to learn in new ways. Testing has long been used as the justification for attacking public education and teachers. It has never told the whole story of classroom learning, and that is especially true now. The Department of Education’s push to enforce a testing mandate, this year, in particular, is an attack on public schools, teachers, and students.