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 measuring the quality of education from one school to the next.
Fast forward to George W Bush and the No Child Left Behind act and tests were suddenly not only suggested, but mandatory. Additionally, “they are now attached to high stakes, such as grade retention, admittance into special programs, graduation, admission into college, and whether or not schools remain open and teachers get to keep their jobs” (Solley). Similar to the Army Alpha tests from World War I, standardized tests today are used to compare test takers and determine rank. The premise behind No Child Left Behind was essentially that if schools, teachers, and students are motivated by a system of rewards and punishments tied to a standardized test, then learning and achievement will also increase.
While No Child Left Behind focused on rating highly qualified teachers, the next movement came with President Obama and his Race to the Top initiative. With Race to the Top, the focus was less on hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers, but with teacher output. Teachers were deemed highly effective if test scores were high and students were successful (Saultz). According to Saultz, “RTTT provided a monetary incentive to SEAs that promised to link teacher evaluations to student performance and ensure those teachers rated effective and highly effective were equitably distributed among high-poverty and high-minority schools and districts.” Research continues to show that high quality teachers are not evenly distributed among school districts or even within school districts. Students who need the most support are often those with the least experienced or qualified teachers, despite federal mandates.
Standardized testing decreases the quality of learning in schools:
While various initiatives since the time of Lyndon B. Johnson have been enacted by politicians, testing has become the norm in schools across the country. Students in grades K-12 are subjected to hours, if not weeks, of testing with the threat and reward of increased funding, more attractive school districts (and thus a higher value of homes in the area), and ranking that sorts the good schools from the bad.
The research, however, shows that standardized testing does not work. Instead of increasing learning and achievement, standardized testing often puts a damper on students’ curiosity and passion for learning itself (Solley). Instead of asking questions, exploring ideas, and problem solving, students are led by extrinsic motivation that is temporary. Teachers, pressured by high stakes testing, also become more focused on targeting and narrowing the curriculum so students perform better on tests and are less able to allow students to self-direct their learning and pursue their own passions. An overreliance on standardized test prep has led to more retentions and higher dropout rates. In fact, even though each President since Johnson has enacted some sort of program that relies on standardized testing, there is little evidence to prove any direct positive correlation to student learning (Solley).
Students who are prepped for a standardized test may perform better on the test itself, but research shows they perform worse in the long term (Sonnert). Standardized testing takes away the need for deep critical thinking. According to Sonnert, “Any potential short-term gains in terms of doing well on the test would be negated by the long-term disadvantage of not having developed a deeper understanding of the subject matter.” Students who are prepped for tests are not necessarily prepped for higher level, more complex concepts they might encounter in college.
Even worse, students who are in lower performing schools--pressured with losing funding if scores do not improve--are often subjected to the most test prep and therefore miss out on opportunities for exploring complex concepts. These students experience the most detrimental effects.
Interestingly, in schools where high stakes tests were required for graduation, more students left school early to earn their GED. According to Amrein and Beliner, in 63% of the states where high stakes tests were given to determine graduation, the average age of a student leaving their formal schooling behind to pursue their GED was lower and in many states, the rates of GEDs increased. In addition to the increase of students leaving school to pursue GEDs, the dropout rates in schools has increased as a result of higher numbers of students being retained because of test scores. In Chicago, 50,000 students had been retained between 1997 and 2003. Researchers found that the students retained were 12% more likely to drop out of school altogether.
In a long term comparison study, Amrein and Beliner compared the SAT scores of students in New York State after wide scale high stakes graduation exams went into effect to students across the United States. Their findings were that the New York students SAT scores went DOWN. Students’ scores were on average 3 points lower from 1984 to 1985 and lost 11 points from 1984-1994.
Standardized testing narrows the curriculum:
Curriculum is also damaged by high stakes testing. Instead of providing depth and breadth, curriculum is often narrowed to focus only on highly tested areas. Further, teachers professional judgement is often abandoned when schools apply for federal grants to improve test scores and are fed government approved programs that further narrow curriculum. The arts, music, physical education and recess time are replaced with skill and drill work.The pressure to have students perform well hinders teachers’ instructional practices. Instead of being encouraged to explore and think for themselves, students are asked to memorize basic facts and test related materials.
According to Solley, "Quality developmentally appropriate teaching and learning practices have taken a backseat to the more focused attention on low-level skills that can be assessed easily on a standardized multiple-choice test.”
There are alternatives to standardized testing:
In classrooms where students grow and learn, teaching, learning, and assessments are closely tied together (Solley). Teachers use a variety of quantitative and qualitative data to arrive at a value judgement of a student’s learning.
According to Solley, assessment should be continuous and permeate all areas of the curriculum, not act as a one moment in time measure. Quality assessment focuses on what students can do, not on their deficits. It informs instruction and helps teachers to best meet students’ needs.
Student self-assessment and their awareness of their own strengths and growth is also a part of high quality testing. When students are aware of their own strengths and growing knowledge, they are empowered to learn even more. According to Solley, high stakes tests “have taken away the power of classroom teachers to make informed decisions about instruction and learning that leads to critical thinking, higher level learning, and decision-making.”
It is time to replace high stakes testing with more meaningful forms of assessment that are ongoing, inform instruction, and empower our student learners.
Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2003). The effects of high-stakes testing on student motivation and learning. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 32-38.
Saultz, Andrew, et al. "Teacher Quality, Distribution, and Equity in ESSA." Journal of School Leadership, vol. 27, no. 5, 2017, p. 652+. Gale Academic OneFile Select, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A552763198/EAIM?u=nysl_ca_gwjrsrhs&sid=EAIM&xid=da7add15. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.
Solley, Bobbie A. "On standardized testing: an ACEI position paper." Childhood Education, vol. 84, no. 1, 2007, p. 31+. Gale Academic OneFile Select, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A170508155/EAIM?u=nysl_ca_gwjrsrhs&sid=EAIM&xid=f8617052. Accessed 27 Feb. 2021.
Sonnert, Gerhard, et al. "Short-term and long-term consequences of a focus on standardized testing in AP calculus classes." High School Journal, vol. 103, no. 1, 2019, p. 1+. Gale Academic OneFile Select, link.gale.com/apps/doc/A618033074/EAIM?u=nysl_ca_gwjrsrhs&sid=EAIM&xid=7e195abf. Accessed 27 Feb. 2021.