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Janresseger: Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. It is worth remembering that until 2002, our society did not test all children in grades 3-8 and once in high school and compare the aggregate scores from school to school as a way to rate and rank public schools. School districts could choose to test students with standardized tests to measure what they had been learning, but until the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable every child to make Adequate Yearly Progress until 2014, when all American students were to have become proficient. Because, as research has demonstrated, out-of-school challenges affect students’ test scores, the whole high stakes testing regime didn’t improve overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “One aspect of the great inequity of the American educational system is that disadvantaged kids tend to be clustered in the same schools. The causes are complex, but the result is simple: some schools have far lower average scores…. Therefore, if one requires that all students must hit the proficient target by a certain date, these low-scoring schools will face far more demanding targets for gains than other schools do. This was not an accidental byproduct of the notion that ‘all children can learn to a high level.’ It was a deliberate and prominent part of many of the test-based accountability reforms…. Unfortunately… it seems that no one asked for evidence that these ambitious targets for gains were realistic. The specific targets were often an automatic consequence of where the Proficient standard was placed and the length of time schools were given to bring all students to that standard, which are both arbitrary.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

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Jan Resseger

Before retiring, Jan Resseger staffed advocacy and programming to support public education justice in the national setting of the United Church of Christ—wo...