The Research Based Reasons We Should Cancel Standardized Testing for Good

Updated: Apr 3

Last week, the US Department of Education announced that state testing would resume this spring in the midst of a pandemic. The Department claimed that, "State assessments and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity, identifying student needs, and targeting the resources to address them." Unfortunately, research has proven the exact opposite to be true. State assessments have led to greater inequities, a loss of resources allocated where they could benefit students the most, a narrowing of curriculum, and a decrease in long-term understanding of the subject matter being tested.

Full disclosure: Testing has defined most of my teaching career. My first year of teaching, my administration met with the junior high ELA department to tell us our school had to develop a Local Assisstance Plan because our test scores on 4th and 8th grade exams had fallen below the benchmark and we were in danger of losing funding. We made a plan for how we would raise test scores. Our students tested high on localized literacy assessments. Our community revolved and rallied around our school. Our kids were smart. So why wasn't that translating in our scores? Why were we being identified as failing?

In retrospect, I know the answer (which I'll unpack in this post); however, at the time, I worked with my team to come up with a plan to increase test scores. Our kids were smart, but not motivated to perform on standardized tests. We came up with a plan to rally our community and parents, hold informational nights, host review sessions with prizes, and serve breakfast the day of the test. We'd vertically align our curriculum, making sure multiple choice and test writing strategies were now a regular part of our classrooms.

While our test scores soared, I noticed valuable parts of our curriculum falling by the wayside. I recognized the downfalls, but I justified the shifts as better preparing my kids for the types of tests they'd encounter their entire lives.

We also fought to make the tests as meaningful as possible. We designed benchmarks, focusing students on celebrating growth and self assessing their learning. We taught kids to use data to set goals. Initially as local control of testing started to slip away more and more and testing became even more high stakes, I spoke out against the opt out movement because we had worked so hard to make a test that was so far out of our reach meaningful for our students. Our scores were published in newspapers. Our rankings showed up on realty sites and people were moving to our community because of our high performing school. And we were off the naughty list.

Unfortunately, with the advent of APPR teacher evaluations, our control over standardized testing started slipping away. At first, I was able to fight to keep the scoring of our students' exams in-house--I would score one teacher's tests and she would score mine. We were unable to inform our instruction the way we had in the past, but at least we knew the people scoring the tests were qualified. However, soon, because of mass-cheating scandals across the country, teachers lost control of test scoring and scoring in-house became a logistical nightmare. Now, our tests would be sent to a scoring center to get scored by strangers with potentially less experience than our teachers. Data that we used to use and share with students to inform instruction and set goals took months to return, often not coming back to us until the subsequent school year.

Standardized testing was no longer something I or any other teacher could make meaningful for students.

Now, as we teach through an unprecedented time in history, these same tests will be administered to our students regardless if we've been learning in person, hybrid, or remote.

After learning that the US Department of Education would be reinstating testing for the 2020-2021 school year, Christina from The Daring English Teacher , Tanesha B. Forman and I decided to join teachers from across the country to advocate for our schools and our students and call for the cancellation of standardized testing. You can join our campaign here.

Beyond personal experiences with testing, why should we call for an end to standardized testing? What does the research say? Let's start with some history.

The history of standardized testing in the US:

While the first standardized tests were used around the time of WWI to determine, out of a million soldiers, who would be capable of leading as an officer and who would be best fit for the battlefield, the first standardized tests in schools came in the 1960s when President Lyndon Johnson, growing concerned for the number of students who were living in disadvantaged homes, created the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to provide extra funding to schools whose students were struggling (Solley).

Senator Robert Kennedy added an addendum to the act requiring states receiving extra funding to report on student progress. What was used to report on student progress? The first ever standardized tests. The Metropolitan Achievement Tests and the Comprehensive Tests of Basic Skills were given based on the Army Alpha tests that were used to sort soldiers in WWI. There was no research that showed the tests could reflect students’ true level of learning, yet the government poured thousands of dollars into encouraging their use (Solley).

In 1983, to further the misuse of standardized testing, A Nation at Risk was published by the Reagan administration. This report stated that, “Our nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world* ... We report to the American people.., the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and as a people” (Solley). Our nation was gripped by the Cold War, and the paranoia that we were falling behind as a nation stretched to our schools.

The report gave recommendations for standards, content, leadership, time, fiscal support, and leadership. Standardized tests became the means of mea