Another Year of Meaningless Standardized Testing: Will Congress Ever Reconsider the High-Stakes Testing Mandate?

While this fall the education news has been filled with conflicts about vaccine and mask mandates and fights about Critical Race Theory, the results of last year’s standardized testing in public schools have begun to arrive.

That is, the scores have begun to be reported from the school districts that administered the mandatory tests last spring.  All the states were required to conduct the testing despite that some schools had opened in-person, others were remote and some were on hybrid schedules. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona did, however, offer states some flexibility.  They could put off the testing until summer or even this fall depending on their circumstances, and they could exempt some students and schools under difficult circumstances.

Because the school year was disrupted by the arrival of COVID-19 in March of 2020 Betsy DeVos had cancelled testing in 2019-2020, but last February, even before Miguel Cardona was confirmed as education secretary, an acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum sent a garbled letter that mandated some form of the universal standardized testing: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

These are the tests that Congress requires under the 2015, Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required two decades ago by No Child Left Behind for all students in grades 3-8 and once in high school. They are the foundation of a two-decades-old scheme to hold schools accountable. In his abstract and garbled letter, Rosenblum did say that states that applied for waivers would not have to use the test scores in this one year to hold schools accountable.

Now, the scores from the tests for the states whose schools did administer the tests last spring—and not in the summer or this fall, as Secretary Cardona permitted—are coming in.  For example, Michigan’s Bridge Magazine reported: “The share of students scoring at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher in English language arts dropped from 2019… in grades 3-7.  The share of students considered ‘proficient’ or higher inched upward for grades 8-11.  Scores in math nosedived in the seven grades in which the test is administered… dropping by more than 5 percentage points in grades 4, 5, and 6. Less than 30 percent of fifth-and sixth-graders who took the test score at a level considered ‘proficient’ or higher… Still it’s likely that the true learning skid is even worse than the data… indicates. In typical years, schools are required to have at least 95 percent of students take the M-Step. That federal rule was relaxed this school year because of the pandemic—schools had to give the test, but students, particularly those taking classes online, could opt out… The percentages of students who took the English language arts and math M-STEP tests in the spring ranged by grade and subject from 64 percent to 72 percent, and varied wildly between school districts.”

So, what does all this mean?  That is the subject of a profound blog post from a retired Michigan teacher and wonderful writer who used to have a regular column in Education Week, Nancy Flanagan.  Flanagan explains: “Here’s the truth: this set of test scores tells us nothing for certain. The data are apples-to-oranges-to bowling balls muddled.  If anything, if you still believe test scores give us valuable information, the data might be mildly encouraging considering what students have encountered over the past 18 months… The problem is this: You can’t talk about good schools or good teachers or even ‘lost learning’ any more, without a mountain of numbers.  Which can be inscrutable to nearly everyone, including those making policies impacting millions of children.”

Remembering a Michigan state school board meeting she attended following the passage of No Child Left Behind, Flanagan describes how she began to grasp of what’s wrong with our national testing regime: “(T)he Board was doing what they were supposed to do: managing the data generated by federally imposed standardized testing, grades 3-8.  Until that meeting, I assumed that there was a hard, established science to setting cut scores. I thought scores were reasonably reliable, valid measures of learning and there were pre-determined, universal clusters of students who would be labeled proficient, advanced, below basic or whatever descriptors were used. I assumed there were standard, proven psychometric protocols—percentage of correct answers, verified difficulty of questions and so on. I was familiar with bell curves and skewed distributions and standard deviations.”

Flanagan continues: What surprised me was how fluid—and even biased—the whole process seemed. There was, indeed, a highly qualified psychometrician leading the discussion, but a lot of the conversation centered on issues like: ‘If we set the Advanced bar too low, we’ll have a quarter of the students in Michigan labeled Advanced and we can’t have that! If we move the cuttoff for Basic to XX, about 40% of our students will be Below Basic—Does that give us enough room for growth and enough reason to put schools under state control?’  The phrase ‘set the bar high’ was used repeatedly. The word ‘proficient’ became meaningless.”

Bob Schaeffer, the executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, has been tracing the impact of No Child Left Behind’s testing mandate for two decades. Now, watching the release of data from the tests that were administered last spring, Schaeffer summarizes what has happened this year: “Earlier this year, thousands of parents, educators and community leaders endorsed a call to suspend high-stakes standardized testing in America’s public schools because the results would not be valid, reliable, or useful. Critics of testing have made that argument for years, but they seem especially relevant given that tests were being given during a pandemic that had upended education since spring 2020.”  Now: “States are releasing their spring test scores, and … wait for it… the results are exactly as predicted.  Scores declined across the board, and historically underserved students fell further behind.”

Schaeffer points out the flaw in the justification Secretary Cardona used to justify requiring testing this year: “So far, there’s little evidence demonstrating that data from this round of standardized exams is being used to address the pandemic’s expected impact, as testing advocates had promised. It’s hard to find examples of states or cities targeting additional resources to schools serving the neediest students..”

Schaeffer wonders: “Were spring 2021 exams really helpful in promoting academic quality and educational equity?  Or was this just another politically driven ‘testing for the sake of testing’ exercise? ”

The question—What to do about too much ineffective standardized testing?— has much larger implications than for just last school year and the current school year. On January 8, 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. As our nation anticipates the 20th anniversary of test-and-punish school accountability, we all ought to demand that Secretary Cardona and Congress reconsider the entire two decades of the failure of federal policy demanding that states turn around the schools deemed “failing” based on their aggregate test scores. We know that the premise of No Child Left Behind—that all American students could be made to score “proficient” by 2014—was proven a failure.

The National Education Policy Center’s newsletter this week questions the myth underneath the No Child Left Behind Act—that schools can be quickly turned around so that they suddenly raise low aggregate test scores and close achievement gaps. Opportunity gaps among students are far more complicated:

“(D)ifferences between schools account for a relatively small portion of measured outcome differences. That is, opportunity gaps in the U.S. arise primarily outside of schools… Poverty, concentrated poverty, and racialized poverty are pervasive features of America. School improvement efforts cannot directly help children and their families overcome decades of policies that perpetuate systemic racism and economic inequality. When children are born in the United States, their educational and life outcomes can all be predicted based on their parents’ education, income, and wealth…  There are two primary ways to change this. The first way is the most obvious: directly reducing poverty by improving the social safety net…. Yet most U.S. policymakers have instead embraced a second approach, at least rhetorically… provide children with high-quality public schooling…. placing enormous expectations on the public school system.”

Instead of a No Child Left Behind demand that schools alone close opportunity gaps, the National Education Policy Center is researching “insights about the need to integrate school-centric and social-system reforms and programs….”

Secretary Cardona and Congress ought to pay attention, especially now as Congress considers funding  President Biden’s Build Back Better program for extending the expansion of the Child Tax Credit, establishing federally funded universal pre-Kindergarten and expanding of Full-Service Community Schools.