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.

Outrage Continues as Standardized Testing Moves Forward in this COVID-19 School Year

Standardized testing—required this school year by Education Secretary Miguel Cardona’s U.S. Department of Education despite the disruption of COVID-19—is now happening in many public schools across the United States. But even as the tests are being administered, the anger and protests against this expensive, time consuming, and, many believe, harmful routine are not abating.

Last week, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported: “The Biden administration is facing growing backlash from state education chiefs, Republican senators, teachers unions and others who say that its insistence that schools give standardized tests to students this year is unfair, and that it is being inconsistent in how it awards testing flexibility to states. Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice has slammed the U.S. Education Department for its ‘indefensible’ logic in rejecting the state’s request for a testing waiver while granting one to the Washington, D.C., school system—the only waiver that has been given. Montana Superintendent of Public Instruction Elsie Arntzen, whose state was also denied a waiver, said testing this year ‘isn’t going to show any data that is going to be meaningful for learning moving forward… The controversy represents the newest chapter in a long-running national debate about the value of high-stakes standardized tests. Since 2002, the federal government has mandated schools give most students ELA and math standardized tests every year for the purposes of holding schools accountable for student progress. The scores are also used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, make grade promotion decisions and other purposes.”

The Journey for Justice Alliance (J4J) describes itself as a nationwide multi-racial coalition of education organizing and policy groups. In a powerful commentary, also published last week, Jitu Brown, J4J’s executive director, and Beth Glenn, a J4J policy strategist, describe the damage wrought by standardized-test-based school accountability across America’s poorest urban communities: “Today, we know that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, racism and economic distress are the same ones harmed most by standardized resting. Standardized testing has been weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Low test scores have been used to deem schools ‘failing’ and (as) the rationale for their closure. For instance, although Black students only make up 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools, Black schools are 88 percent of the schools that have been closed or totally re-staffed. In the same city during the COVID pandemic, although Black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 70 percent of the COVID deaths. These students have already shouldered more than their share of grief, isolation, digital deprivation, interrupted learning, and fear for themselves and their families.”

Brown and Glenn continue: “No educator needs to subject children to a stress-inducing bubble test to identify which students are hurting and in need of our support. In fact, we know that these tests do best at predicting a student’s economic status—which is knowledge we already have! …. (T)est scores have been used to justify taking away learning opportunities in art, music and enrichment, replacing experienced teachers with untrained temporary ones, expanding charters to compete and drain already underfunded schools, and to disinvest in and close those underfunded schools altogether.” “These tests saddle students with labels, haunt them with stereotypes, make school dull and disengaging, put targets on kids’ backs for disinvestment, and create displacement when their schools are ultimately closed because charter operators use student academic performance or behavior to push students out in order to make their own academic portfolio look more attractive to school boards.”

Brown and Glenn provide examples of charter schools pushing out the students who need the most help: “The Chicago… Noble Network of Charter Schools just apologized publicly for… ‘counseling students out’ to transfer them to other schools in order to improve the company’s numbers and denying entry to students with special needs. New York’s Success Academy just agreed to pay $2.4 million to five families of students with special needs for pushing them out with daily harassment calls to parents, constant removals from classrooms, and threats to call police and family services. It’s no accident that many believe those practices… were driven by the need to produce high test scores.”

Valerie Strauss quotes Bob Schaeffer, the acting executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, who believes that Miguel Cardona’s Department of Education has responded inconsistently and with poor attention to the COVID-19 resurgence that is once again shutting down in-person learning in particular school districts: “Department of Education staff seem to be issuing rulings based on whether an applicant goes through the motions of stating that it is offering some form of statewide exam, no matter how small a percentage of students is likely to take it and no matter how useless results from a skewed test-taking population might be… The goal seems to be testing solely for the sake of testing.”

In an action alert on Saturday, the National Education Association invited its members and supporters to submit a formal comment on the Department of Education’s guidance to require standardized testing in this COVID-19 year. “As part of the regulatory process, the U.S. Department of Education is seeking input from the public about standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year…The official deadline for comments is May 7, 2021, but it is critical that you submit your letter as soon as possible.”  “While some states’ assessments are already moving forward, we are hopeful that the outcry from the public will force the Department to evaluate how harmful and ineffective standardized tests are and start working toward a new system that truly measures student learning… Your opposition to high stakes standardized tests will also send a message to state departments of education and state legislatures that data from this year should not be relied upon to evaluate educators, students, or schools.”

Please do respond to NEA’s action alert by submitting your personal letter.

Educational Researchers Demand Cancellation of Spring 2021 Tests: Secretary Cardona Won’t Cancel, but Says In Future He May Reexamine Role of Testing

On Tuesday, in remarks at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona declared that he will not bow to pressure and will instead continue demanding that standardized tests be administrated this year again as usual, despite that COVID-19 has utterly upended another school year.  Last year Betsy DeVos cancelled the tests as schools shut down in March.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported on Wednesday: “A day after more than 500 education researchers asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona not to force school districts to administer federally mandated student standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona said Tuesday that policymakers needed the data obtained from the exams…. (H)e said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said Tuesday that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better,’ he said.”

On Monday, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter urgently asking Secretary Cardona to cancel the federally required standardized achievement tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school. America’s standardized testing regime was mandated in January of 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act and, in 2015, folded into that law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The federal government set up the testing regime as the foundation of a massive school accountability scheme that ranked and rated America’s public schools and set out to turnaround (mostly through a cascade of sanctions) the poorest performing schools as measured by the tests. It was said that all of America’s youth would score “proficient” by 2014. Today we know that the law did not improve academic achievement overall and that it failed to close academic achievement gaps by race and family economics. In fact damage for students, their schools, and their teachers followed instead.

The letter, sent to Cardona on Monday from a large body of academic researchers in education, directly questions the value of forcing public schools to administer standardized tests this spring as being not only impractical and burdensome for school districts when some students are learning in class and others online, but unlikely to produce complete or reliable data. The letter was sent on behalf of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beyond Test Scores Project, and authored by Jack Schneider at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Lorrie Shephard, Michelle Renee Valladares, and Kevin Welner at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A list several pages long contains the names of 544 additional academic researchers.

Here are the concerns the researchers identify about the gathering of data through standardized tests this spring: “First, we strongly urge USED to work with states to approve requests for flexibility as they attempt to limit statewide testing, especially in states where significant numbers of students are still engaged in remote learning and where the state request has identified alternative data sources that can meet state needs.  This recommendation is based on the following: The results of remotely administered tests will not be equivalent to the results of in-person testing. Great variability in participation rates and non-random selection bias make it impossible to compare results across schools or between this year and previous years… (T)here is no way to prevent misinterpretation and misuse of these highly flawed data.”

The researchers also caution about the use of data, once gathered, from any administration of standardized tests this year: “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.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa interviewed Secretary Cardona. Ujifusa asked about Cardona’s decision to continue standardized tests this year, while being willing to work with states and offer some degree of flexibility. In his answer, Cardona expresses some of the same concerns the researchers raise in Monday’s letter about the past two decades’ uses of standardized testing: “To be overly enamored by data is to be vulnerable to their misuse.  So we have to keep in perspective what the data will tell us and what it won’t tell us. It should never be even considered at this point for (labeling) schools as high-achieving schools, or low-achieving schools. We need to forget about that. We also shouldn’t be utilizing data for (educator) evaluations, because it’s not valid for that this year. However, as we’re rolling out $130 billion (in federal COVID-19 aid for schools), any data that can help state leaders think about policy and distribution of funds, to make sure that it’s aimed at closing achievement gaps and (addressing) lack of access to quality learning, that’s critically important. The team has been working at the agency, even before I joined, on flexibilities. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We know in come places, they’ve been in schools since day one. In other places they’re just starting to get in. So flexibility is critically important.” (Parenthetical statements are Ujifusa’s.)

While Secretary Cardona seems to share some of the researchers’ concerns, we will need to observe his actions carefully in upcoming months as he takes over a federal department that has been mired for twenty years in a scheme organized to stigmatize and punish the schools and teachers serving poor children. These tests have never been used to drive the allocation of resources on a scale that would help the students in the school districts where our society’s poorest children are segregated. Will Cardona change a department which has tried to shape up low scoring schools by inducing states to punish and sometimes fire the principal and the teachers, or by imposing school closures or state takeovers, or by encouraging states to locate privatized charter schools or offer private school vouchers to students in those districts?

In his recent book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black highlights the massive school funding inequity that has endured throughout the past twenty years of standardized, test-based school accountability: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need. (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)