No field trips, no senior proms or formal dances, no Kente commencements or graduation ceremonies. Welcome to May/June, 2020, and the world turned upside-down for everyone, and in quite particular ways for students and schools.
These rituals and experiences will surely return one day, but for young people on the verge of taking the next steps forward in their lives, the loss is level, and the disappearance irreparable.
Another passing away—one that ought to be embraced and not mourned—is the suspension of report cards, grades, and standardized tests. New York City announced a policy for public schools that suspends failing grades, and introduces an alternative mark: “in progress.” That sounds like a major improvement—why not make it permanent? Los Angeles adopted a “hold harmless” approach in which students can improve their grades, but cannot drop below where they stood before the shut down. And in Illinois school districts are encouraged to adopt a system of pass/incomplete, or credit/no credit. That, too, sounds like an upgrade—let’s keep that one as well.
Suspending and even abolishing standardized measures is impacting higher education too: California will allow teacher-candidates who have graduated from teacher education programs to enter classrooms and the profession next year without completing the controversial but formerly-mandated Education Teacher Performance Assessment (EdTPA) portfolios which were burdensome, ineffective, expensive, and widely unpopular; the College Board has postponed the SAT exam and has made the Advanced Placement exams an open-book test done at home; and 1,160 four-year colleges and universities, including Harvard and Stanford, have announced that SAT and ACT scores are optional for admission this year, and many plan to extend that policy indefinitely. Most dramatically (and hopefully) the vast University of California system will go “test optional” for two years, and then “test-blind” for two more years as it develops fairer alternatives to the SAT and ACT.
In the best of times, the use of high stakes standardized tests has been problematic—it exacerbates existing racial, social, and educational inequities by doling out rewards largely to the already privileged; it distorts the work of teachers by placing undue emphasis on a limited set of skills as it it devalues the most humane, creative, and expansive aspects of curriculum and schooling. Test results correlate strongly with traditional race and class disparities, and with parental income—choose the right parents and your scores will soar. Children of the wealthy, of course, have a host of advantages from the start—high-quality early child care, summer camps, music lessons, international travel, tutorials—and research shows that high stakes standardized tests only serve to further skew those privileges.
Further, the ranking of schools by test scores places unwarranted pressure on teachers to “teach to the test” rather than to the child, and it perpetuates the distasteful idea that good schools are for some and not for all in a democracy. Testing, of course, is massively expensive, money that could surely be better used to create smaller classes, expanded arts programs, and nurses and counselors in every school.And it’s become crystal clear in recent years that the weight placed on certain standardized measures combined with the huge consequences—high stakes—makes cheating inevitable. This explains in part why cheating scandals on standardized tests are rampant across the land—the root problem is incentivizing the wrong thing.
Standardized testing within K-12 schools has been a common-place feature for decades, and it’s unleashed an increasingly forceful opposition—parents electing to have their children skip the tests, stay home, or sit in the auditorium during test time. Hundreds of communities have concluded that the tests are disruptive but have no authentic educational benefit, and several are becoming sophisticated in analyzing the underpinnings of the entire test-and-rank obsession. The racket is additionally revealed by applying “Goodhart’s Law,” named after the British economist Charles Goodhart: A performance metric is only useful as a performance metric as long as it isn’t used as a performance metric. If you want to build a “good high school,” and you announce up-front that 100% college attendance is the indicator of whether you’ve achieved that goal, people will work frantically and single-mindedly toward that designated target, and it might even be achieved, but to the detriment of the larger goal. One hundred per cent of its graduates could indeed go to college (the performance metric) because every effort was bent in that single direction, but proponents glossed over an anemic curriculum, autocratic and rote teaching, a massive push-out rate, a sketchy list of what counts as “college,” and astronomical college failure. Not good. The target had become the goal, and the larger universe (the school itself) continued to be an educational wasteland.
The whole modern testing regime distorts life for students and teachers alike. It de-professionalizes teachers, turning them into clerks, and it focuses on a tiny set of testable things that then become glorified as the things-most-needful. The tail is wagging the dog. Albert Einstein famously noted that not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted. Think, for example, about love, joy, justice, solidarity, curiosity, beauty, kindness, compassion, commitment, peace, effort, interest, engagement, awareness, connectedness, happiness, joy, sense of humor, relevance, honesty, self-confidence, respect for others—keep counting.
Twenty years ago the College Board acknowledged that the Scholastic Aptitude Test had little to do with “aptitude” and dropped that word from its title, changing the name to the Scholastic Achievement Test. That wasn’t quite right either—the test can’t say what’s been achieved, and so the name was changed again. It’s now simply called the SAT. It makes some wacky, perverse sense that the most famous test in the land is named for itself and measures those skills needed, mostly, for itself.
The pandemic crisis illuminates anew intolerable circumstances and situations that we’ve somehow been tolerating all along. In Chicago African-American make up a third of the population and three-quarters of the Covid19 deaths; healthcare as a product to be sold at the market place is a catastrophe for most people; massive numbers of Chicago students have no computer, and when Lady Bountiful sweeps in to provide one, they still have no access to the internet.
And then, in the blink of an eye, we see clearly that what we’ve been told was impossible, is in fact, possible: the federal government can guarantee incomes and send payments directly to individuals; businesses can extend sick leave to their employees; healthcare can be guaranteed; people awaiting trial can be let out of jails.
High-stakes standardized testing will not be happening this spring, and yet schools will eventually open, and teachers, facing a complex set of new factors affecting children’s lives, will find ways to figure out what children have learned and retained, and how to approach a school year unlike any other. We will then face a critical choice: return to the inequities and inadequacies of the system as it was and assume that the testing frenzy naturally drives the whole educational enterprise, or create something more vital and robust based on the idea that every child is of incalculable value, and everyone should have the right to an education geared to their full development as human beings.
So step back a moment and ask a fundamental question: what could schools be, and what should they be, in a free and democratic society? Let’s rally to suspend standardized testing for the next three years, freeing teachers and students from the tyranny of the tests, and use that time to mobilize teachers, students, parents, and whole communities to examine innovations in assessment, and to generate alternative approaches for documenting school effectiveness and student learning that suit our wildly diverse population of students.
Abolish the test! Liberate the curriculum!