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Gayle Green is a professor emeritus at Scripps College. In this post, she rages about the stupidity of the Biden testing mandate. In other areas of American life, we learn from our mistakes and move forward. But our policymakers are stuck in the past, so in love with failed ideas that they can’t let go of them.
There’s hope in the air, a scent of spring, anticipation of change, democracy may pull through. Why, then, with K-12 public schools, the broken promise, the dismay?
Biden raised hopes when he promised, Dec 16, 2019, that he’d “commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools,” saying (rightly) that “teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.” Yet on Feb 22, his Department of Education did an about-face, announcing, “we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning …parents need information on how their children are doing.”
How the children are doing? They’re struggling, that’s how, doing their best, and so are teachers and parents. And it’s the least advantaged who are struggling the most, who, in the transition to online teaching, are likeliest to be without access to the internet, whose families are most vulnerable to loss of jobs, health care, lives. Now this? It costs $1.7 billion to administer these tests, but the toll on kids— the tears, terrors, alienation— is incalculable.
Most people have no idea what a blight these exams are, how they’ve stripped K-12 curricula of civics, history, literature, the arts, languages, even the sciences. Since schools live or die on the basis of test scores, what does not get tested does not get taught, and education is reduced to a mindless drill of math and English skills. No wonder kids come out of school wanting never to read another book, knowing nothing about science, the past, how to read their world. No wonder teachers are leaving in droves; the teacher shortage was dire even before the pandemic. When Betsy DeVos waived these tests last spring, teachers were so relieved that some said it had been worth the move online, to have 6-8 weeks liberated for teaching.
The high-stakes standardized testing regime began with George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB, 2002). The program arrived in a cloud of rhetoric about “access” and “civil rights,” describing itself as “an act to close the achievement gap… so that no child is left behind.” NCLB was, by 2009, an acknowledged failure, but the Obama administration took it over, renaming it Race to the Top, and requiring that states adopt, as a condition for federal funds, the Common Core State Standards, a set of national standards nailed into place in 2010 by the billions and boosterism of Bill Gates. Gates promised that the Core would “unleash powerful market forces,” which it did, and would level the playing field, which it did not.
And how could it? The only thing testing has ever done for the disadvantaged is to communicate a message of failure and lay waste to public schools. What test scores measure is family income; they correlate so closely that there’s a term for it—the zip code effect. When test scores have shown “low performance,” schools have been closed by the hundreds, mainly in low-income, minority neighborhoods, and replaced with privately-run, profit-generating charters.
Despite twenty years of failure, despite the waste of time and money, the standardized testing must go on. More broken promises.
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