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Janresseger: Nobody Should Be Wasting Time Worrying About When to Administer Standardized Tests

Parents, children, teachers, principals, and school superintendents are living through a time of unknowns. COVID-19 is raging across the states with many public schools operating only online. Some public schools, which have been able to open in person or on hybrid schedules, have subsequently been forced to close already reopened buildings or specific classrooms as COVID-19 cases arise and everybody quarantines.

In the midst of a chaotic situation with no good and stable solutions for many public schools, suddenly last week everybody started worrying about what to do about this year’s standardized tests. The Washington Post‘s Perry Stein reports that outgoing Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos postponed the winter administration of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the one test administered across all the states, the test that tracks school achievement over the decades and is not distorted by high stakes consequences.

Representatives Bobby Scott (D-VA) and Patty Murray (D-WA), the Democratic leaders of the House Education Committee, agreed to delay the NAEP, but said the nation needs some kind of measure of learning loss during the pandemic.  They released a statement declaring that annual state tests mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act must surely be administered: “Existing achievement gaps are widening for our most vulnerable students, including students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color. In order for our nation to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we must first understand the magnitude of learning loss that has impacted students across the country. That cannot happen without assessment data.”

While I frequently agree with Representatives Scott and Murray, I think worrying about standardized testing right now ought to be a low priority, and I think the state-by-state achievement tests mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act are the wrong kind of test.  Neither do I believe that the mandated, annual state achievement tests are necessary to help teachers grasp their students’ learning needs during and following the widespread school closures and disruptions in the current school year.  Our schoolteachers are well trained professionals who are prepared to develop their students’ reading comprehension skills, to track problems with computational skills and mathematical conceptualization, and to help support their students emotionally after a period of disruption. The emphasis right now and when children return to classrooms must be supporting teachers facing the complex challenge of serving children who have been out of the classroom for too long. Standardized test scores very often don’t even arrive at schools for months after the tests are administered; they play little role in supporting teachers’ capacity to discern their students’ learning gains or losses.

If we are looking for complex data about the impact of the pandemic on public schools across communities and across states, at some point it will be realistic for the National Center for Education Statistics again to administer the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is designed as a national audit test to determine learning trends over time.  When it is practical to administer NAEP, certainly that test should happen.

The annual standardized tests, mandated first by No Child Left Behind and, since 2015 by the Every Student Succeeds Act, are designed for an entirely different purpose.  And ironically the purpose and use of these tests for holding schools accountable distorts the results as schools struggle to raise scores at any cost in order to avoid the high stakes punishments that Congress attached to these tests or forced the states to attach. What are these high stakes? States still have to submit to the U.S. Department of Education plans for how to turnaround their lowest performing schools according to these tests.  Some states still evaluate teachers according to their students’ scores. States rate and rank particular schools and school districts according to their aggregate test scores. Many states publish these rankings, which encourages real estate redlining as well as racial and economic segregation across metropolitan areas. Different states place voucher programs or charter schools in school districts where scores are low. Some states take over low scoring schools and school districts and turn them over to appointed commissions that supplant locally elected school boards.  Some school districts have claimed to use school closure as a so-called turnaround plan.

In a profound 2017 book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on standardized testing, documents research exposing flaws in the entire strategy of No Child Left Behind, which combined standardized testing with high stakes punishments for schools unable quickly to raise students’ test scores. Koretz explains social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are tied to a quantitative social indicator.  In this case, the social indicator is whether or not educators and particular schools can produce higher aggregate student test scores year after year:

“The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)

Koretz shows that imposing high stakes punishments on schools and educators unable quickly to raise students’ scores inevitably produces reallocation of instruction to what is being tested, causes states eventually to lower standards, causes some schools quietly to exclude from testing the students likely to fail. Under No Child Left Behind, the high stakes even led to abject cheating—as happened in Atlanta under Superintendent Beverly Hall.

What all this means is that the state achievement tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act—whether administered to students this year or put off until after vaccines are widely available and students return to their classrooms—are not an appropriate tool for measuring the long term impact of the pandemic on students’ lives and learning.

Ideological advocacy for holding public schools accountable drove the passage and implementation of the original No Child Left Behind Act. The idea was that educators can be motivated to work harder through fear if their schools are threatened with punishments.  The idea of attaching high stakes consequences for low test scores remains with us today. Last week Chester E. Finn, Jr., formerly of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and now affiliated with the Hoover Institution, published a widely read column in the Washington Post.  Twenty years ago, Finn strongly promoted No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish strategy, and clearly he continues to believe in using high stakes testing as a threat. Here is a paragraph from his recent column that Finn could easily have cut, pasted, and slightly updated from something he wrote back in 2001:

“The results from those state assessments are the main source of information about school performance and about pupil learning in the core subjects of the K-12 curriculum. The results also indicate whether America’s appalling — and persistent — achievement gaps are getting any narrower. These student statewide test results are the foundation of a school-performance measurement structure that the United States has been painstakingly constructing in the decades since being declared “A Nation at Risk” in 1983. The information from the tests is used at every level of the system. It enables parents to see how their children are faring on an “external” metric, beyond the grades conferred by their teachers, and it helps principals assess how their schools are doing. The results also equip superintendents to gauge what must be done to boost district-wide achievement, and they furnish state officials with the information needed to guide their assistance and interventions.”

Today, nearly two decades after the states were mandated to administer annual standardized tests and after No Child Left Behind imposed sanctions on the schools with the lowest scores, we know that the whole scheme failed to support children’s school achievement and failed to close achievement gaps. Some schools were charterized as a punishment; other schools were shut down; principals and teachers were fired.  And scores on the national audit test, the National Assessment of Education Progress (the NAEP), have fallen in some cases and in other cases remained flat.

I believe it is unnecessary—in the midst of a raging pandemic and a Presidential transition—to worry about when the federal government will mandate widespread standardized testing.  The bigger question is whether and how the federal government will manage a plan to get the pandemic under control and provide enough support to help states and school districts get all children and adolescents back in school.

I agree with Diane Ravitch, who explains: “Resumption of standardized testing is completely ridiculous in the midst of a pandemic. The validity of the tests has always been an issue; their validity in the midst of a national crisis will be zero. They will show, even more starkly, that students who are in economically secure families have higher test scores than those who do not. They will show that children in poverty and children with disabilities have suffered disproportionately due to lack of schooling.  We already know that.  Why put pressure on students and teachers to demonstrate what we already know?  At this point, we don’t even know whether all students will have the advantage of in-person instruction by March.  If anything, we need a thorough review of the value, validity, and reliability of annual standardized testing, a practice that is unknown in any high-performing nation in the world.  We are choking on the rotten fumes of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

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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—working ...