Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Urgently Important Debate about Federally Mandated High-Stakes Tests

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 was signed by President George W. Bush, there was no mandated high stakes testing across the states. We also ought to remember that NCLB did not, as promised, cause 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 school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps.  Sadly, it did, however, shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

A lot of damage has followed as we have branded the schools serving concentrations of very poor children as failures and punished them through state takeovers, forced privatization, and even school closures.  We have condemned the teachers in these schools as failures. We have published the comparative ratings of schools and thereby redlined particular communities, and accelerated white flight and segregation.

Standardized testing for purposes of school accountability is now mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act, No Child Left Behind’s 2015 replacement. Last school year as COVID-19 struck, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing, but early this spring, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance mandating that the states would be required to administer standardized tests despite that COVID-19 had upended the school year with a mixture of in-person, hybrid, and online education.

In a letter, dated February 22, 2021, then acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum informed states they must test students this year, but Rosenblum offered school districts some flexibility if they submitted applications for waivers. He also said that this year the federal government would not require states to use the tests for holding schools accountable through penalties for the lowest scoring schools. His letter explains what is permissible but it has spawned considerable confusion: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments. A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

In March, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter protesting Cardona’s failure to cancel standardized testing in this 2020-2021 school year but at the same time affirming the Cardona plan not to use the tests  for high-stakes accountability. The researchers emphasize the danger of the past 20 years of test-and-punish: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed. But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

This summer, press coverage of the issue of standardized testing has largely disappeared.  But suddenly there is some reporting, because McKinsey & Company, and a test publisher, NWEA have just released reports on tests conducted at the end of the school year.  What’s troubling is that while Secretary Cardona has defined the need for widespread testing for the purpose of gathering information, the new reporting is simply being used to document so-called “learning loss,” which many fear will stigmatize and discourage the children in America’s poorest communities.

Trying to explore both sides of the for-or-against standardized testing issue, Chalkbeat Chicago‘s Mila Koumpilova simply assumes that school districts will want to “quantify the academic fallout” from the pandemic and worries  that if testing is cut back this year, Chicago will lose (according to the old NCLB argument) the chance to hold schools accountable:  “The change also raises questions about what tests, if any, the district might use to rate its schools and evaluate its teachers and principals going forward. The MAP math and reading tests factored into the district’s controversial school ratings program, known as SQRP, as well as employee evaluations, admissions to selective enrollment and other competitive programs, and student promotion to the next grade.”

Koumpilova also assumes that our society needs something test makers brag their products will produce: the chance to prove with data that the poorest children were affected most seriously by the school closures and disruption of COVID-19. “New national data from NWEA shows the pandemic widened pre-pandemic test score gaps by race and economic status, and that those disparities were most pronounced for the country’s youngest students and those attending high-poverty schools. The results are considered among the most comprehensive national accounting so far of academic setbacks.  Without a benchmark to compare pre-pandemic growth, it’s not clear how Chicago would measure its own students’ academic progress.”

Without reminding readers that national testing companies have a vested interest in promoting their expensive products, the NY TimesSarah Mervosh simply quotes Karyn Lewis of NWEA, and one of the authors of new report on the importance of NWEA’s recent test results: “How much did the pandemic affect students?  The latest research is out, and the answer is clear: dramatically. In math and reading, students are behind where they would be after a normal year, with the most vulnerable students showing the steepest drops… ‘It’s a bitter pill to swallow,’ said Karyn Lewis, a senior researcher at NWEA and the lead author of the organization’s report… ‘It just keeps you up at night.’  For example, in math, Latino third graders performed 17 percentile points lower in spring 2021 compared with the typical achievement of Latino third graders in the spring of 2019. The decline was 15 percentile points for Black students, compared with similar students in the past, and 14 for Native students….  The report used data from about 5.5 million public school students in third through eighth grade who took the NWEA’s tests during the 2021 school year….”

Finally, we learn that some states will continue to attach high-stakes punishments to the testing despite that Secretary Cardona has rejected that purpose for this year. Michigan is imposing a third-grade guarantee to hold back students whose reading scores were too low at the end of this school year.  Benton Harbor, Michigan is one of that state’s poorest and most racially segregated school districts. The state has been threatening to dissolve the district or shutter its schools to erase a long running debt to the state, which underfunds school districts in Michigan’s poorest communities.  ProPublica‘s Annie Waldman shows us the struggles of third grade teacher, Ashlee Thompson, assigned to teach—online this year—all the third graders at her school, with 48 originally assigned, a number that grew to 53 and then 79 before the broke and indebted school district hired another teacher and reduced her online class size to 35. Waldman explains that a third-grade guarantee in Michigan will force school districts to retain low scoring students unless Governor Gretchen Whitmer can intervene, and we learn about several of Thompson’s students who face being held back despite the chaos of the current school year.  Research demonstrates that holding kids back damages kids’ self confidence and radically raises the chance they will eventually drop out of school.  Waldman profiles children trying to learn online in crowded and noisy homes, families struggling financially, a teacher overwhelmed with outrageous demands made by her school district as she struggles heroically with her own health problems and tries to raise her own children who are learning at home online as she tries to reach between 35 and 79 students every day.

It is evident that there is widespread disagreement about the meaning, uses, and purposes of standardized testing.  But what began in early spring as a significant discussion of these concerns has faded into spotty reporting about testing here and there and the documentation of learning loss. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa, sets out to explore the issues underneath testing this year, but his analysis quickly gets lost in the weeds of the debate about high-stakes testing and the political controversy that has been raging for years. As we emerge from a school year totally disrupted by COVID-19 and perhaps face another year disrupted by the new Delta Variant of the pandemic, it is a good time to examine the ways high-stakes standardized testing has affected our children, our public schools, and our communities.

And it is a good time to explore how much testing we actually need for the purpose of documenting the effects on children of last year’s disrupted schooling in wealthy and poor communities.  I believe that school districts and school teachers everywhere will begin the school year by learning to know their students,  assessing their students’ particular needs, and planning how to make learning exciting at whatever level the children begin the school year.

If the economic disparities exposed by standardized testing were to motivate states and the federal government to take steps to address economic inequality, then I would find the documentation of learning gaps to be more valuable.  In the meantime, Congress, state legislators, school district leaders and staff at state departments of education ought to be leery of the promotion of widespread testing by the testing companies that stand to profit from selling the tests.

2 thoughts on “Let’s Not Lose Sight of the Urgently Important Debate about Federally Mandated High-Stakes Tests

  1. Perhaps our kids (and our education system) would be better off if the perpetrators of the harm done to children, education and learning “were kept up each night” by their love affair with standardized testing.

  2. Dear Jan, I’m finally catching up today by reading your essays. I know first hand how standardized testing affects students who are learning disabled. My son and my granddaughter do poorly on these tests but both are brilliant learners. Thank you! Phyllis

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