From A Teacher: Cancel This Year's State Tests

by Nick Ash
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

The Biden administration has announced that states will be required to give the annual standardized tests in math and ELA, despite the ongoing public health crisis. They will be allowed some “flexibility” in terms of when and how to give the exams, but they may not simply cancel.

As a teacher, I think this is a big mistake. Neither the schools nor the students need the headache of doing these high-stakes exams. The exam administration will be particularly chaotic, given what things are like on the ground right now. And the data from the tests will be virtually useless, as they will most likely just tell us what we already know: the schools that have been able to go (more or less) back to normal are doing OK, while the schools that are struggling are really struggling. Do we really need a set of standardized test scores to tell us this?

Even under the best of circumstances, these state tests interrupt normal teaching for weeks on end in the spring. Two days for math and two days for ELA, times the number of grades taking the test—that’s how long the school gets converted into a testing center, with everybody’s schedule modified so students can sit for the exams and teachers can proctor them. Students with special needs are pulled out so they can receive testing accommodations. Students who are opting out of the tests report to the guidance office or the auditorium, where they usually just sit around waiting for the test to be over. During these weeks, very little actual teaching goes on—it is impossible to concentrate on anything else until the tests are over.

That’s what it’s like in the best of circumstances. To do all this in the middle of a pandemic will be absolutely ridiculous. Exam protocols on top of COVID safety protocols will be a logistical nightmare. We’ve already lost so much instruction time due to the shutdown in the spring. We should use every available moment to teach the kids, not subject them to seemingly endless tests.

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Our students, like all of us, have gone through an immensely stressful and potentially traumatic year. They all had to cope with some measure of isolation and loneliness last spring when the schools were shut down. For the most part, they still have not resumed their normal social activities. More than half of them are studying remotely, so their interactions with other kids may be severely limited. The children’s mental health has been tested by this crisis. It does not feel like the right time for a series of high-stakes exams that will only contribute to the chaotic and stressful atmosphere.

Keep in mind, too, how this pandemic has exacerbated the existing inequalities in the American public school system. The schools that have been able to open safely are the ones that are most spacious, best ventilated, and have the budget to provide all students and staff with masks and disinfectant—in short, the most affluent, privileged schools in America. Meanwhile, students of color are most likely to be the ones learning remotely. But over four million households lack Internet access or access to a computer, a group that is disproportionately Black, Hispanic, and Native American. If students of color are most likely to be learning remotely, but also least likely to have a computer or Internet access, this suggests that untold numbers of students are slipping through the cracks.

If you’re a middle-class suburb dweller and the kids in your community have mostly gone back to school in person, or if your district has a remote or hybrid program that is working well and most kids have a stable, reliable WiFi connection—then yeah, it might make sense for your town to offer the exams.

But that’s not the question. The question isn’t whether any school district in America could offer the tests and potentially get meaningful results. The question is whether it makes sense for all of them to stop instruction and do weeks of standardized testing, regardless of what is happening on the ground in the community. In the school districts that have been hit hardest—districts where students have lost the most instruction, where students are most likely to have lost a neighbor, an uncle or aunt, a parent or grandparent—it may not be appropriate to administer high-stakes exams right now.

Some are arguing that economic and racial inequalities make an argument in favor of giving the exams. After all, test scores will help us assess the damage, and let us know which communities need the most help. Ian Rosenblum, an assistant education secretary, has explained that test scores “play an important role in advancing educational equity.”

There are several problems with that line of argument. First of all, we know which communities are struggling in this pandemic. Schools and school districts are collecting data and assessing student learning all the time. If we want more data, each state and each school district can determine for itself the best ways to assess students’ progress. It makes no sense to insist on a one-size-fits-all approach.

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Second of all, high-stakes standardized tests are hardly the only way to find out what students are learning. It has often been said that the main thing assessed by standardized tests is—the student’s ability to take a standardized test. A student’s aptitude at outsmarting tricky test questions, or picking the right multiple-choice option by process of elimination, does tell us something about that student’s abilities, but it’s not necessarily the best way to assess the breadth and depth of a student’s understanding.

Third of all, and perhaps most importantly, state test scores are never simply used as a way of innocently collecting data. Rather, the test scores are publicly touted by the schools and school districts that perform best, to bolster their prestigious reputations. Predictably, the more privileged and whiter schools are the best performers, which leads to them being ranked highest on the various ranking sites, which in turn raises property values in these communities, reinforcing the systems of privilege from which they already benefit. The school districts that are struggling—the ones we were ostensibly helping by assessing the severity of the learning gap—are essentially punished for their lower performance.

Similarly, student test scores are used as a factor in teachers’ professional evaluations. If students do well on tests, that is taken as a sign of excellent teaching; if students fail, it follows that the teachers have failed them. But this is senseless in the context of a system of brutal inequality. In privileged school districts where students tend to do well, teachers have nothing to fear from standardized exams. But in school districts where students are struggling, the exam scores can lead to poor ratings for the teachers; thus the places that need teachers the most are the places where it’s toughest for teachers to hold onto a job.

Because these exams have high stakes—for the schools, the school districts, and the teachers—they are often treated as if they were the whole raison d’être of the learning process. Class discussions are cut short, enrichment activities suspended, every other educational goal deferred in favor of test prep. The frustrating thing is that President Biden himself seems to understand this: in 2019, he opined that “teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.”

“Teaching to the test” degrades learning and is disheartening for both teachers and students, even in the best of times. But in times like these—with our students understandably distracted, as we strive to keep them engaged despite Zoom, despite a raging pandemic, when we’ve lost so much instruction time already—it could be fatal to the learning process. Some students just won’t have the mental or emotional bandwidth to deal with standardized testing right now, and they’ll simply check out.

For the sake of students’ academic success as well as their emotional and mental health, school districts should be allowed to decide that now is not the moment for these tests. Of course we need to collect data on student progress and student performance, but schools should do assessments in the ways that feel most appropriate given what is going on in their communities. To push a state test in the midst of a public health emergency is senseless and counterproductive.