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The Biden administration chose a pro-testing advocate, Ian Rosenblum of Education Trust New York,Miguel Cardona has not yet been confirmed as Secretary of Education nor has Cindy Marten been confirmed as Deputy Secretary. Who made this decision? Joe Biden? Jill Biden? Ian Rosenblum, who has not yet been confirmed as Deputy Assistant Secretary? (The Assistant Secretary has not even been announced.) Is the Obama administration back?
Joe Biden said unequivocally at a Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh when he was campaigning that he would end the federal mandate for standardized testing. Denisha Jones, lawyer, teacher educator, board member of Defending the Early Years, and the Network for Public Education, asked candidate Biden if he would end standardized testing.
This is hugely disappointing, first, because it is a broken promise; second, because it imposes standardized testing in the midst of a pandemic when access to education has been grossly uneven and unequal; third, because it diverts the attention of teachers and students to a meaningless exercise.
Please read this article that I wrote a few weeks ago for Valerie Strauss’s blog:It begins with the history of IQ testing, which was the forerunner to standardized testing, and shows its relationship to eugenics and racism.
In the middle, I summarize the pointlessness of the tests:
Politicians and the general public assume that tests are good because they provide valuable information. They think that the tests are necessary for equity among racial and ethnic groups.
This is wrong.
The tests are a measure, not a remedy.
The tests are administered to students annually in March and early April. Teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions. The test results are returned to the schools in August or September. The students have different teachers by then. Their new teachers see their students’ scores but they are not allowed to know which questions the students got right or wrong.
Thus, the teachers do not learn where the students need extra help or which lessons need to be reviewed.
All they receive is a score, so they learn where students ranked compared to one another and compared to students across the state and the nation.
This is of little value to teachers.
This would be like going to a doctor with a pain in your stomach. The doctor gives you a battery of tests and says she will have the results in six months. When the results are reported, the doctor tells you that you are in the 45th percentile compared to others with a similar pain, but she doesn’t prescribe any medication because the test doesn’t say what caused your pain or where it is situated.
The tests are a boon for the testing corporation. For teachers and students, they are worthless.
Standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and education. The students from affluent families get the highest scores. Those from poor families get the lowest scores. This is the case on every standardized test, whether it is state, national, international, SAT, or ACT. Sometimes poor kids get high scores, and sometimes kids from wealthy families get low scores, but they are outliers. The standardized tests confer privilege on the already advantaged and stigmatize those who have the least. They are not and will never be, by their very nature, a means to advance equity.
In addition, standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. There will always be a bottom half and a top half. Achievement gaps will never close, because bell curves never close. That is their design. By contrast, anyone of legal age may get a driver’s license if they pass the required tests. Access to driver’s licenses are not based on a bell curve. If they were, about 35 to 40 percent of adults would never get a license to drive.
If you are a parent, you will learn nothing from your child’s test score. You don’t really care how he or she ranks compared to others of her age in the state or in another state. You want to know whether she is keeping up with her assignments, whether she participates in class, whether she understands the work, whether she is enthusiastic about school, how she gets along with her peers. The standardized tests won’t answer any of these questions.
So how can a parent find out what he or she wants to know? Ask your child’s teacher.
Who should write the tests? Teachers should write the tests, based on what they taught in class. They can get instant answers and know precisely what their students understood and what they did not understand. They can hold a conference with Johnny or Maria to go over what they missed in class and help them learn what they need to know.
But how will we know how we are doing as a city or a state or a nation? How will we know about achievement gaps and whether they are getting bigger or smaller?
All of that information is already available in the reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), plus much more. Scores are disaggregated by state, gender, race, disability status, poverty status, English-language proficiency, and much more. About 20 cities have volunteered to be assessed, and they get the same information.
As we approach the reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act — the successor law to No Child Left Behind — it is important to know this history and this context. No high-performing nation in the world tests every students in grades 3 to 8 every year.
We can say with certainty that the No Child Left Behind program failed to meet its purpose of leaving no child behind.
We can say with certainty that the Race to the Top program did not succeed at raising the nation’s test scores “to the top.”
We can say with certainty that the Every Student Succeeds Act did not achieve its purpose of assuring that every student would succeed.
For the past 10 years, despite (or perhaps because of) this deluge of intrusive federal programs, scores on the NAEP have been flat. The federal laws and programs have come and gone and have had no impact on test scores, which was their purpose.
It is time to think differently. It is time to relax the heavy hand of federal regulation and to recall the original purposes of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act: to distribute funding to the neediest students and schools; to support the professional training of teachers; and to assure the civil rights of students.
The federal government should not mandate testing or tell schools how to “reform” themselves, because the federal government lacks the knowledge or know-how or experience to reform schools.
At this critical time, as we look beyond the terrible consequences of the pandemic, American schools face a severe teacher shortage. The federal government can help states raise funding to pay professional salaries to professional teachers. It can help pay for high-quality prekindergarten programs. It can underwrite the cost of meals for students and help pay for nurses in every school.
American education will improve when the federal government does what it does best and allows highly qualified teachers and well-resourced schools to do what they do best.