Federally Mandated Standardized Testing: If Nothing Is Done to Change a Bad Public Policy, It Never Goes Away

The beginning of the new year is a good time to look around and consider that the way things are is not how they have to be. Annual standardized testing, the pivotal public policy that shapes U.S. children’s experience of public schooling today, is now recognized by most educators and many policy experts as a failed remnant of another time.

However, Miguel Cardona, our current U.S. Secretary of Education, has quietly allowed this policy to continue and permitted us all to cruise through one more school year without seriously confronting its implications. Even though Betsy DeVos cancelled the federal testing mandate in the spring of 2020 as COVID-19 struck, on February 22 of last year, an acting assistant secretary of education sent the state departments of education a letter announcing that—despite that some students were in class, others online, and some in hybrid online/in-person classes due to COVID-19—standardized testing would take place as usual in the 2020-2021 school year.  Despite considerable pushback from educators, that decision has never been reconsidered, and in the current school year federally mandated standardized testing is happening as usual.

Of course Secretary Cardona’s focus has been dominated by COVID’s disruption in public schools, and the problem is likely to continue as the new Omicron flareup threatens to intensify the pressure this winter despite the rollout of vaccines.  Even amidst these ongoing challenges, however, the time has come for the Secretary of Education to work with Congress to confront the overuse of standardized testing as the yardstick for measuring the quality of public schools and supposedly holding them accountable. Good leaders are responsible for initiating needed reforms when flawed public policy undermines the institutions where our children learn.

January 8, 2022 is the 20th anniversary of President George W. Bush’s signing the No Child Left Behind Act into law. 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 (NCLB) became law, there was no federally mandated high stakes testing across all U.S. public schools.

NCLB did not, as promised, enable 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 overall school achievement and it didn’t close achievement gaps. Sadly, it did shift the blame for unequal test scores onto the public schools themselves.

Today states are required by No Child Left Behind’s 2015 successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), to identify their state’s bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a way to blame and punish educators and supposedly “incentivize” them to work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe:

  • Many states publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns “a turnaround strategy.”
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score “proficient” on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools” and focuses the rest of the above punishments on the schools in the poorest communities.
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight to wealthy exurbs where aggregate test scores are higher.

Here are three academicians considering problems with high-stakes standardized testing from the point of view of their areas of expertise.

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz explains a primary reason why high-stakes standardized testing unfairly punishes the schools, the teachers, and the students in America’s poorest communities: “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…. 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.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 129-130)

Not only is the test-and punish regime unjust, but it also violates accepted theory about how children learn. Nobody thinks drilling and cramming for standardized tests is an inspiring kind of education, but in their 2014 rebuttal of the test-and-punish regime, 50 Myths & Lies That Threaten America’s Public Schools, David Berliner and Gene Glass point out that the test-and-punish era has also pushed out more important work at school: “Teaching problem solving and creativity is indeed possible, particularly when the teacher is an engaged teacher who uses culturally relevant pedagogical practices. But the issue lies not in whether it is possible, but in whether the teaching of these skills is disappearing…. (G)iven the current education system with its ever-increasingly test-based accountability systems, classrooms are becoming more controlled. Thus, environments in which problem solving and creativity are likely to be promoted are less evident… It should come as no surprise that when teachers focus on multiple ways of knowing and celebrate the wealth of knowledge their students bring to the classroom, collaborative environments spring up. In these environments, students and teachers participate in meaningful conversations about a variety of topics, including issues that are often of direct concern to their local community… It is through conversation, not didactic instruction, that students are able to articulate what they know and how they know it, while incorporating the knowledge of their peers and their teacher to further their own understanding.” (50 Myths and Lies, p. 238)

Finally, in Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy, a fine new collection of essays edited by David Berliner and Carl Hermanns, education historian Diane Ravitch summarizes the impact of No Child Left Behind’s test-and-punish regime: “Many schools were punished. Many teachers and principals were fired, their reputations in tatters… Nonetheless, Congress and state leaders remained fixated on raising test scores. NCLB remained in force until 2015, when it was replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, which removed the deadline by which all students would be proficient and dropped some of the other draconian punishments. But what did not disappear was the magical belief that a federal mandate based on annual standardized tests would produce better education. In the grip of the policymakers’ obsession with testing and ranking and rating and sorting, schools that were important to their communities were closed or replaced or taken over by the state because their scores were too low. Forget the fact that standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and affected by important factors like disabilities and language ability.” (Public Education: Defending a Cornerstone of American Democracy,  p. 26)

When he campaigned for President in 2019, Joe Biden rejected standardized test-based school accountability. This year, 2022, is a good time for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to provide real policy leadership and ensure that President Biden can realize his promise.

Pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Grows: Cancel Standardized Tests in this Crazy COVID-19 School Year

There is absolutely no reason why the U.S. Department of Education should refuse to grant states waivers this spring from the federal requirement for standardized testing. Two weeks ago, a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum released guidance telling states they must test students as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act despite the pandemic. After that, the Senate finally voted to confirm President Biden’s appointment of Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education.

We all hope that Dr. Cardona will reconsider. And it is becoming clear that the subject is not closed.  Experts, parents, educators, and members of the public continue to press the new Secretary of Education to do the right thing in this year when some students have been in school, many are on hybrid schedules, and many others continue to learn remotely.

Why should Secretary Cardona cancel testing this spring? When Rosenblum announced that he was charging ahead to require testing, he ignored more than a month of informed advocacy by board of education members, education experts, school administrators, schoolteachers and parents—all pushing the Department of Education to grant states waivers to cancel the tests in this COVID-19 year. (See here, here, here, and here.) No one in the Department has provided a convincing justification for requiring that the high-stakes tests be administered this school year.

Opponents of testing this spring have spoken about problems of feasibility when some students are in class and others learning remotely, and they have raised serious questions about the validity and comparability of the information that can be collected during these times. Others question whether time should be wasted on testing when teachers need to be putting all of their energy into supporting students’ well-being and learning instead of test prep and test administration. While some have argued that teachers need the test results to guide their instruction once schools reopen, testing experts have continued to point out that teachers won’t get overall results for months and will never learn about individual students’ answers to particular multiple choice questions. Others have pointed out that these tests have been required for two decades not for any kind of pedagogical purpose but instead to be used for so-called accountability: so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

A letter from 74 national organizations and more than 10,000 individuals sent to Secretary Cardona on January 30, 2021—after he had been appointed but before his nomination had been confirmed—describes in plain language exactly what should happen when children can return normally to their classrooms: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic value when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

New pushback against mandated testing has emerged this week.

On Tuesday, several Congressional Democrats sent a letter pressing Secretary Cardona to cancel the tests.  Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The effort is being led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), vice chair of the House education committee and a former middle school principal… The letter to Cardona… was also signed by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Tom Suozzi (D-NY), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) as well as Sens Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)… Bowman, who said he’s had ‘preliminary conversations’ with fellow lawmakers about a legislative path to stopping standardized testing, also took aim at how the Biden administration’s decision was carried out last month. The new testing guidance was unveiled by the Education Department on Feb. 22, before Cardona was confirmed by the Senate. The guidance was signed by Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of the Education Trust-New York.”  Rep. Bowman explains, “Mr. Rosenblum, with all due respect, has never been a teacher or school administrator in his life, and it’s important that our parents and educators know that these decisions are being made by people who do not have the experience to make those decisions.”

Also on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association did something extremely unusual. AFT and NEA released a shared agenda outlining the best thinking of their members and their collaborative research departments and  pledged to work with states and school districts on the steps that must be taken not only to get students back in school but also to support children’s academic progress and their psychological and social well-being after a difficult year.

Part I of this joint document from the two unions that together represent millions of American teachers begins with a plea on behalf of children for relief this spring from the federal standardized testing mandate: “In February 2021, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance on assessing student learning during the pandemic in relation to the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Prior to that, both the NEA and AFT stressed the need for flexibility in both the administration of assessments and their use in accountability, and both advised that standardized testing should be suspended for the 2020-202 school year. Standardized test scores have never been a valid, reliable or complete measure of an individual’s instruction, nor do they accurately measure what students know and are able to do. And they are especially problematic now. The assessment flexibilities offered by the department, while helpful, do not go far enough to allow states to support the gathering of information and the distribution of resources in a way that will support teaching, learning and healthy school environments.”  The statement continues with thoughtfully and professionally developed suggestions for “the way forward,” including all sorts of examples of diagnostic assessments that have been developed by educators in collaboration with respected academic research partners and local community partners.

It is not too late for the rest of us to add our voices to those of academicians, members of Congress, the two major teachers unions, and other advocates. Pressure on Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to reassess the need for federally mandated, high-stakes standardized testing in the 2020-2021 school year remains timely and important.

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, offers the following guidance for advocates:

  • “Push the U.S. Department of Education and Congress to reverse plans to deny comprehensive testing waivers;
  • “Pressure states to request maximum possible student assessment flexibility for the current year by pushing the envelope of the waivers USDOE already has said will be granted;
  • “Simultaneously, push states and districts to suspend their own testing mandates for the 2020-2021 school year and lift all high-stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools;
  • “Pursue these policies in the context of promoting well-rounded, authentic assessment systems developed in partnership with educators; and
  • “If Spring 2021 testing policies are not overhauled consistent with these goals, aggressively promote broad, diverse standardized exam opt-out campaigns.”

Washington Post Joins NY Times to Demand Reinstatement of Standardized Tests in Schools this Spring: It Is Still a Bad Idea

On Friday, the Washington Post editorialized to demand the reinstatement—this spring in the midst of COVID-19—of the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeed Act. Betsy DeVos mercifully cancelled the testing mandate last spring as the pandemic hit.

On Friday, this blog critiqued a similar January 2nd, editorial from the NY Times‘ editors, who demanded that the new Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reinstate the annual annual standardized testing regime.

The reasoning of the Post‘s editorial is flawed, and the realities for teachers, families and children make the federally mandated state testing ridiculous this spring.  The Post‘s editors wonder: “How can schools create plans to make up for COVID-related learning losses if those losses haven’t been measured? Wouldn’t knowing which students have been most adversely affected be helpful in directing resources for mitigation efforts? Don’t parents have a right to know whether their sons and daughters are achieving?”

The Post would appear to trust big data and distrust educational professionals.  As soon as schools can be opened in person, professionally educated and prepared teachers and public school staff will be assessing what students need, adapting curricula accordingly, and helping parents support their children’s learning. Teachers have been doing their best throughout this school year to meet children’s and parents’ needs, although the disruption of switching back and forth from online to in-person to on-line learning as COVID-19 infections have surged and abated and surged has made the year chaotic for families and for educators.

As experts quoted on Friday in this blog point out, the state-by-state standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act were created as a tool for school accountability; these tests have never been effective for informing classroom practice. The results are not accessible to school teachers for months after the tests are administered.  On Friday, this blog quoted Diane Ravitch explaining that these tests will not assist teachers who are trying to support children as they return to the stable, in-class instruction we anticipate as soon as vaccines are widely available and schools reopen: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test.”

Professor of research and evaluation methodology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Lorrie Shepard warns: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic.  Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Shepard flatly rejects a primary argument of the Post‘s and the Times’ editors: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.  At the state level, there may not be new monies to allocate because of budget cuts.”

Lack of money to support reopening schools and to enhance ongoing programming and even prevent staffing reductions as the COVID-19 recession deepens has been a worry all year among education professionals.  Without COVID relief for state and local governments, it is feared states will be forced to cut their education budgets in the next couple of years—state budgets which cover over 45 percent of all school funding on average.

President Elect Biden is already well aware of alarming educational inequity. Biden has pledged immediately to support another COVID-19 relief bill that would, with the new Democratic Senate majority, presumably include assistance for state and local governments. Biden has also pledged to invest federal dollars through tripling Title I and other investments for equity.  Biden campaigned on on a promise to increase investment in the public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated:  “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Injustice in American public education has been defined for generations by what Jonathan Kozol in 1991 described as Savage Inequalities in investment between wealthy and poor school districts.  Programs like the federal Title I program for compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children as well the states’ school funding distribution formulas are intended, despite their inadequacy, to invest federal and state dollars in the school districts lacking local property taxing capacity.  Inequities will persist until our society finds a way, in the poorest school districts, to invest in pre-Kindergarten and wraparound Community Schools; small classes; plenty of counselors, nurses and librarians; and the kind of curricular enrichment children in wealthy exurbs take for granted.

This COVID-19 year is an excellent time for the federal government to invest in educational equity and to incentivize states to increase their investments in the poorest school districts. It is a bad time to relaunch the failed high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

New Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Should Not Require Annual Standardized Testing in This COVID-19 School Year

Last weekend, the NY Times editorialized to demand that President Elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education promptly “clear the wreckage” from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. The newspaper is correct to criticize Betsy DeVos’s abandonment of the department’s mission of protecting the civil rights of America’s public school students. And the editorial writers deserve praise for condemning DeVos’s dogged support for for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of indebted student borrowers.

But pretty quickly the Times editorial board steps into the old trap of endorsing federally mandated high stakes standardized testing and the collection of big data at the expense of the children and teachers who are struggling to make it through this school year being shunted back and forth from on-line schooling to in-person school and then back on-line as the COVID-19 numbers rise and fall. The editorial board has slipped into the No Child Left Behind mindset that values data over the lived experience of students and teachers:

“Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math. However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.”

That is, of course, what No Child Left Behind and its massive state-by-state testing regime was supposed to be about, except that nobody ever “allocated educational resources strategically” once we had all the big data. President Elect Joe Biden has explained that across the United States: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.” Despite wide agreement that twenty years of data-driven school accountability failed to drive investment into the poorest schools, the narrative has been deeply embedded into the conventional wisdom.

It will be up to our new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to decide whether to cancel this spring’s federally mandated standardized tests in language arts and math for a second year. Betsy DeVos, to her credit, let the states and the nation’s public schools off the hook last year due to the chaos of the pandemic.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized the past two decades of mandated standardized testing and the choice which now faces Education Secretary Cardona: “The annual spring testing regime—complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing ‘pep rallies’—has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable.  First, under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas.  Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts—at least in part—on test scores.”

Strauss continues: “Supporters say that (the tests) are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing. Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students get wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school—and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.”

Criticizing the NY Times editorial, Diane Ravitch elaborates as she suggests that Dr. Cardona should cancel the mandated state tests for a second year: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know… Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

Writing for Education Week last month, Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of research and evaluation methodology  at the University of Colorado School of Education cautions that, Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake. Like many experts, Shepard worries about the use of standardized tests for high stakes accountability: “Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for week-long test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing test-like worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. Recent studies of data-driven decision making warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements… Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported… Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption. Testing this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic.”

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a profound and thorough exploration of the past two decades of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their schools and their teachers, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz concisely explains why the federal use of widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators has not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.

Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “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)