It’s Time To Take Another Look At Standardized Testing

Originally published by Greater Park Hill News – May 2nd, 2019

If you have a child in a public school in Colorado, chances are they just spent a couple of weeks taking standardized tests instead of learning something new at school.

Between pre-K and grade 12, the average American student will take 112 standardized tests (not including diagnostic tests for students with disabilities or English learners, or school and teacher developed or required tests). In Denver Public Schools, 20 standardized tests are administered annually. While a single child may not take all 20, he or she will likely take at least eight (the national average). According to one recent study, our nation’s eighth graders will spend an average of 25.3 hours taking standardized tests this year.

Test results are used to hold districts, schools, and teachers accountable for student performance but there are many unintended consequences to this approach. As one DPS principal recently told me, “I believe in the importance of accountability and measuring a school’s effectiveness in growing students’ instructional knowledge.

“My concern,” this principal continued, “is that these tests have been proven to have racial and socio-economic biases, that we use these as the only measure of a school, and that the pressure on students and teachers surrounding testing creates an environment where everything stops for a test that the students do not learn from. There is no option to go back and reteach: students get some feedback, but not until months later. That’s not what schools are for.”

While standardized testing has played a role in American education since the mid-1800s, the use of these tests has risen dramatically since the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002. With NCLB, mandated annual testing became high-stakes, as schools received consequences when their students failed to achieve high enough scores. The law required that 100 percent of students test “proficient” by 2014. Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) toward this goal was monitored and failure to meet AYP led to the withdrawal of federal funding, and ultimately, state takeover of failing schools.

NCLB’s focus on accountability for student performance was hailed by proponents as the path to a more equitable education for every student. The results, however, never measured up. The 100 percent proficiency goal was never reached and, in fact, scores on international exams actually declined during this period. Many educators believe that the tests actually decreased learning because they emphasized the teaching of what to think over how to think.

Other possible reasons for failure include research showing that standardized tests are culturally biased, meaning that test items often assess knowledge or experiences that are specific to the dominant culture.

In one shocking example from 2003, potential SAT questions that were answered correctly more often by black students than by white students were rejected by the test makers. Other examples include asking students to identify or define vocabulary words more commonly heard in white, upper class lexicon, or questions that assume a student from an urban, midwest city has experiences from the beach.

Beyond tests reflecting white dominant values and experiences, additional bias lies in the socio-economic status of the test-takers. Some students have access to private tutoring, parents with advanced degrees and hundreds of books in the home, all factors known to improve test results. Other students live with toxic stress and may come to school on test day under-fed, under-rested and unlikely to be able to concentrate on answering unfamiliar questions on a computer.

In 2015, NCLB was reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act. While this new Act rectified some of the problems of NCLB (e.g. AYP) and states were given more autonomy in forming accountability plans, the requirement for annual standardized testing remains. And the biases in the tests have not been eliminated.

In Denver Public Schools, a school’s rating on the School Performance Framework (SPF) is based heavily on state standardized testing. As discussed in the January issue (see Opinion: Much More than a Color by PHNEE Co-Chair Andrew Lefkowits), “red” schools in DPS have higher concentrations of students of color, English language learners, refugees, and students from low-income backgrounds. It is these students who are most impacted by the biases in the tests and, as a result, often underperform. While holding low-performing schools with diverse student bodies accountable is imperative, weighting standardized testing heavily in that equation is inequitable.

Accountability is important, but we need to work on identifying a more equitable approach – one that lessens the pressure to perform on a single test on a single day and puts more emphasis on learning and growing in school every day.