Gadfly on the Wall: Standardized Testing During a Pandemic is Stupid. And Cruel.
When the Biden administration announced that schools across the nation would have to give standardized tests during the global Coronavirus pandemic this year, America’s teachers let out a collective sigh of disgust.
If it had to be put into words, it might be this:
“I can’t even.”
Imagine a marine biologist being told she had to determine if the water in the dolphin tank is wet.
That’s kind of what the demand to test is like.
Determine if the water is wet and THEN you can feed the dolphin.
Imagine a person on fire being told to measure the temperature of the flames before you could put them out.
Imagine a person staving in the desert being required to take a blood test to determine previous caloric intake before anyone would offer food or water.
It’s literally that dumb.
No, it’s worse.
The reason the Biden administration gave for requiring testing this year was to determine the amount of learning loss students had suffered during the pandemic.
I wrote that in one sentence but it will take several to show how dumb that idea is.
First, there’s the idea of learning loss.
What does it mean?
It’s based on the idea that kids learn on a schedule.
You need to know A, B and C when you’re in 3rd Grade. You need to learn D, E, F in 4th grade. And so on.
And if you miss one of the letters somewhere in there, you’re learning will be disrupted forever.
The Biden administration seems to be worried that kids are not intellectually where they SHOULD be because of the pandemic and that if we don’t do something about it now, they will be irreparably harmed.
It is pure fantasy.
Some fool at a standardized testing company just made it up to sell more product.
And it doesn’t take much to prove it wrong.
Do a thought experiment with me.
Imagine you needed directions to the store.
You didn’t get them yesterday. You got them today.
Was your brain irreparably harmed?
You were still able to learn how to get to the store, weren’t you? You just did it one day later. No problem.
It might have stopped you from getting your groceries yesterday, but you can certainly go shopping today.
Now imagine we weren’t talking about directions. Imagine we were talking about addition and subtraction.
Some kids are ready to learn these concepts earlier than others. Does that mean there’s something wrong with them?
No. Absolutely not. It’s just that people’s brains develop at different rates.
And if you don’t learn something one year, that doesn’t mean you can’t learn it a year or two later.
There may be issues with core concepts like language acquisition being delayed too long over larger amounts of time, but these are extreme cases.
Delaying one or two years of school curriculum won’t make or break you.
For most of us, not learning something now doesn’t preclude learning it later.
No child has lost the ability to learn because of the pandemic – except any who died as a result of catching Covid.
That’s perhaps the biggest way the Biden administration’s testing requirement is dumb. It’s justified on assessing something that doesn’t exist.
But if we redefine learning loss into the next best thing that DOES exist – learning – it at least makes sense.
So maybe Joe meant that we need standardized tests to find out how much kids have learned (not what learning they’ve lost).
It’s still deeply stupid, but at least it’s coherent.
Here’s the problem. Standardized tests are completely unnecessary to assess learning. In fact, they’re notoriously terrible at measuring this.
Under normal circumstances, standardized tests don’t show how much a child has learned. They show how well the child can take the test. They show how well the test taker can play the game of test taking.
Most questions on these tests are multiple choice. They limit the possible answers to 4 or 5 choices.
If you’re asking something extremely simple and clear, this is achievable. However, the more complex you get – and by necessity the more subjective the question gets – the more the test taker has to think like the person who wrote the question.
That’s why it’s a standardized test. That’s what it means – conforming to a standard.
Out of all the possible ways to answer the question, the standard test taker will answer like THIS. And whatever that is becomes the correct answer.
The test makers get to decide what kind of person to set the standard as, and most of the time it’s white, male, Eurocentric kids.
This doesn’t matter so much when you’re asking them to calculate 2+2. But when you’re asking them to determine the meaning behind a literary passage or the importance of a historical event or the cultural significance of a scientific invention – it matters.
And that doesn’t mean poor, brown kids aren’t intelligent. It just means they don’t necessarily think like the standard rich, white kids.
We don’t need to give standardized tests to tell us who gets low scores during a pandemic. It will be the poor minority kids. During a pandemic, during a recession, during a stock market boom, during a revolution, during anything.
Moreover, the idea that the amount of learning children have done in school is a mystery is, itself, a farce.
Of course, most kids have learned less during the pandemic than under normal years.
Schools have been disrupted. Classes have been given remotely, in-person and/or in some hybrid mix of the two. Parents, families, friends have gotten sick, jobs have been lost or put in jeopardy, social interactions have been limited.
You really need a standardized test to tell you that affected learning?
You might as well ask if water’s wet. Or fire’s hot? Or if a starving person is hungry?
Okay. How about looking at the classroom grades students have earned? Look at the amount of learning the teacher has calculated for each student.
After all, most of these kids have been in school to some degree. They have attended some kind of classes. Teachers have done their best to assess what has been learned and to what degree.
Look at teachers’ grades. They will give you 180-some days worth of data.
Look at student attendance. See how often children have been in class. I’m not saying that there aren’t justifiable reasons for missing instruction – there are. But attendance will tell you as lot about how much students have learned.
Ask the parents about their kids. Ask how they think their children are doing. Ask what kind of struggles they’ve gone through this year and how resilient or not their children have been. Ask about the traumas the children have experienced and what solutions they have tried and what kind of help they think they need.
And while you’re at it, make sure to ask the students, themselves. I’m sure they have stories to tell about this year. In fact, many teachers have suggested students keep Covid diaries of what they’ve been going through.
Finally, take a look at the resources each school has. How much do they spend per pupil and how does that compare with surrounding districts? Look at how segregated the school is both in comparison to other districts, other schools in the district and class-by-class within the school. Look at class size, how wide or narrow the curriculum is, how robust the extra curricular activities offered, what kind of counseling and tutoring each school offers. That will tell you a lot about how much learning students have achieved – not just during Covid times but ANYTIME!
If that’s not enough data, I don’t know what to tell you.
There are plenty of measures of student learning this year. Standardized testing is completely unnecessary.
But unfortunately that doesn’t end the stupid.
Now we come to the rationale behind assessing learning in the first place.
Are you freaking kidding me!?
That’s the reason behind this fool’s errand?
You need something to tell you where to direct the resources?
Let me give you a little advice. If you’ve got a hungry dolphin, stop worrying about the wetness of the water. Feed the dang thing!
If someone’s on fire, put away the thermometer and take out the hose.
If someone’s starving, put away the needle and take out a glass of water and a sandwich.
Because that’s the ultimate problem with test-based accountability.
There is no additional funding coming to help kids overcome the hurdles of Covid. Just as there were no additional resources to help children of color after many failed standardized assessments.
There’s just a boondoggle to be given to the testing companies on the dubious promise that the next time kids take the tests, they’ll do better.
There’s no money for tutoring or counselors or extra curricular activities or reducing class size. But there’s a treasure chest full of gold doubloons (i.e. tax dollars) for testing companies to give us test prep materials.
Common Core workbooks, standardized test prep software, test look-a-like apps – they’re all there.
It’s all just corporate welfare for the standardized testing industry. It’s not about helping kids learn.
In any normal year, that would be bad enough.
But this year it’s even worse.
Not only will the tests fail to bring any relief to children struggling to learn in a pandemic, they will actually stop them from learning.
Because, after all, one of the most precious resources this year is time. And that’s exactly what these tests will gobble up.
Wasting time on testing is bad in any year, but in a year when school buildings have been closed and learning has been conducted remotely, when we’ve struggled with new technologies and safety precautions, when we’ve seen our friends and neighbors get sick, quarantine and hospitalize… Every second learning is that much more valuable.
Yes, Biden is allowing all kinds of leniency in HOW we take the tests. They can be shortened, taken in school, taken remotely, even taken at a later date – but they must be taken.
So goodbye, time that could have been spent on authentic learning. Hello, hours, days and weeks of test-taking drudgery.
That’s not a trade off many teachers, parents or students think is fair.
So President Biden can stop the charade.
America’s teachers aren’t buying it.
We know how deeply stupid this testing mandate is.
Stupid and cruel.
Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Paging, Dr. Jill Biden. Where you at?
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