In yesterday’s Washington Post, Valerie Strauss published a very hopeful column: It Looks Like the Beginning of the End of America’s Obsession with Student Standardized Tests. I hope she is right. Her column covers current efforts to stop the requirement for college entrance exams and the wave of testing in primary and secondary public schools that was enshrined in the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act. This post will be limited to examining the implications of the mandated standardized testing that, for two decades, has dominated America’s K-12 public schools.
Strauss begins: “America has been obsessed with student standardized tests for nearly 20 years. Now it looks like the country is at the beginning of the end of our high-stakes testing mania—both for K-12 ‘accountability’ purposes and in college admissions. When President George W. Bush signed the K-12 No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the country began an experiment based on the belief that we could test our way to educational success and end the achievement gap. His successor, Barack Obama, ratcheted up the stakes of test scores under that same philosophy. It didn’t work, which came as no surprise to teachers and other critics. They had long pointed to extensive research showing standardized test scores are most strongly correlated to a student’s life circumstances.”
Strauss explains what’s different this year: “Now, we are seeing the collapse of the two-decade-old bipartisan consensus among major policymakers that testing was the key lever for holding students, schools and teachers ‘accountable.’ And it is no coincidence that it is happening aginst the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic that has forced educational institutions to revamp how they operate. States are learning that they can live without them, having been given permission by the Department of Education to not give them this past spring… Former vice president Joe Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and ahead of Trump in many polls, has tried to distance himself from the pro-testing policies of the Obama administration. He was not a cheerleader of testing during Obama’s two terms and has said recently he is opposed to high-stakes testing. That’s not a promise that he will work to reduce it, but it is a promising suggestion.”
Strauss publishes six principles from FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, principles designed to guide state policy by reducing reliance on high-stakes testing:
- “Limit state standardized test requirements to no more than the minimum required by ESSA (the Every Student Succeeds Act that replaced No Child Left Behind) once each in reading and math in grades 3-8, plus once in high school, as well as one science test each in elementary, middle, and high school…
- “Seek federal waiver of testing requirements, at least for the 2020-2021 school year but preferably longer…
- “Terminate high-stakes consequences that rely on test scores for students (grade promotion tests, exit exams, course/program placement), teachers (bonuses, job ratings) and schools/districts (simplistic grading systems).
- “Protect young children by banning mass standardized testing before grade 3…
- “Enforce testing transparency and enhance public oversight…
- “Develop and implement performance-based assessment systems that enhance academic quality and equity by focusing on improvements in student work done over time.”
One of the most misunderstood issues about our current wave of testing is the impact of attaching high-stakes punishments to test scores. Test-and-punish was the central strategy of the No Child Left Behind Act. It was assumed that, under the threat of sanctions, teachers would raise their expectations for their students and quickly raise test scores in even the public schools with low aggregate scores. You will remember that when the law passed in 2002, Congress gave America’s public schools a dozen years until which, by 2014, all American children were going to achieve proficiency. Except it didn’t work. We now know that Congress’s assumptions underneath No Child Left Behind failed to recognize many factors inside and outside of schools that affect standardized test scores.
In a profound book, The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Daniel Koretz, a Harvard University expert on the design and uses of standardized testing, explores serious problems that arise when high stakes are attached to testing. First there is social science research evidence that attaching high stakes punishments for teachers and public schools when scores don’t rise in fact distorts the test results and at the same time undermines in several ways the entire educational experience for both students and teachers: “The more any quantitative social indicator 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 education process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39) In chapter after chapter, Koretz demonstrates that the consequences have been particularly devastating in schools where child poverty is concentrated; testing has narrowed the curriculum to the tested subjects, forced teachers to coach students and teach to the test, and even resulted in cheating by educators to make a school’s or school district’s scores look better.
Second, Koretz demonstrates that, because children in some schools start farther behind and face far greater obstacles, No Child Left Behind’s uniform timeline for the testing and the law’s application of high-stakes punishments embodies a bias against public schools in the poorest communities and their teachers: “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—and, particularly important in this system, more kids who aren’t ‘proficient’—than others. 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.” (pp. 129-130)
I believe FairTest’s third principle is designed to undo the greatest damage wrought by two decades of high stakes testing: “Terminate high-stakes consequences that rely on test scores for students (grade promotion tests, exit exams, course/program placement), teachers (bonuses, job ratings) and schools/districts (simplistic grading systems).” As states have undertaken to follow the dictates of No Child Left Behind, they have attached punishments for the schools and school districts where scores have failed to rise or where they have risen too slowly. States have branded those schools and school districts as failures, and continued in several significant ways to punish the nation’s most vulnerable schools instead of providing support. Across the United States, public schools in the poorest communities continue to receive less funding than the schools in America’s wealthiest and most exclusive suburbs.
Here are the high stakes punishments—always based primarily on aggregate students’ scores on standardized tests—that states persist in imposing on the schools and school districts where scores are low:
The Third Grade Guarantee: Students who do not meet the standardized test cut score for “proficient” in reading are in many states held back for another year in third grade. This is despite that research shows that students are developmentally ready to begin reading at very different ages and that forcing children to read in Kindergarten (as the Third Grade Guarantee has encouraged many schools to push) may cause students to struggle and to dislike reading. Holding children back has also been shown eventually to increase the chance that a student will drop out before graduating from high school.
High School Exit Exams and Graduation Tests: By denying high school diplomas to students who don’t pass a graduation exit exam, many states continue to punish high school students even if these students have passed all the required classes.
Teacher Evaluations: Some states continue, according to what they promised Arne Duncan, to evaluate teachers by their students’ aggregate standardized test scores. When the Every Student Succeeds Act replaced No Child Left Behind, that federal agreement states had made to qualify for Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers was dropped. Tying teachers’ evaluations to their students’ standardized test scores remains in states’ policies as a remnant of another era.
State Report Cards: FairTest mentions “simplistic grading systems” for school districts. I believe these grading systems may be the most damaging negative consequence of high stakes testing because all sorts of other serious punishments cascade from the state report card grades. States were required by No Child Left Behind to rate school districts and individual schools primarily by aggregate standardized test scores. Many states created school district report cards that award school districts and particular schools letter grades: “A” through “F.” One of the most damaging consequences is that real estate sales websites like Zillow and Great Schools have adopted these state-awarded grades to brand specific communities as desirable places to live and to brand others as undesirable. Because aggregate standardized test scores correlate most highly with family income, the state report card grades—based largely on the each school district’s aggregate students’ test scores—have created educational redlining that is driving racial and economic segregation across America’s metropolitan areas.
School Closures: One of the original “turnaround” models under No Child Left Behind was school closure. Some school districts have found ways to shutter or phase out low scoring schools. In June of 2013, Chicago closed 50 schools, with over 80 percent in African American neighborhoods. Research from the University of Chicago’s Consortium on School Research showed that students didn’t do better on the whole in receiving schools. A University of Chicago sociologist, Eve Ewing published a profound book, Ghosts in the Schoolyard: Racism and School Closings on Chicago’s South Side, about widespread grieving across one African American neighborhood when public schools which had served for years as community anchors were shut down.
Targeting Particular School Districts for Privatization: Some states use aggregate standardized test scores to identify so-called “failing school districts” and then to enable children in those districts to qualify for private school tuition vouchers. Some states locate charter schools primarily in the school districts where aggregate standardized test scores are lower. Instead of investing more financial support for smaller classes and more staff in the public schools in those school districts, some states take the voucher dollars or the per-pupil state funding for each charter school student right out of the local school district budget.
State School District Takeovers: State takeovers are the ultimate damaging consequence of the punishments imposed by state legislatures on their poorest and lowest scoring school districts. Over the years many states have seized low scoring schools or school districts, imposed autocratic, state appointed CEOs to manage the schools or turned over the schools to a “state achievement authority.” Gradually after the long failure of such state seizures of schools and whole school districts, the schools are being returned to locally elected school boards, but the damage to local schools and the disruption of communities is a long, sad story.