Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the 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 tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and 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.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”