The Perils of Standardized Testing

by Ralph Scharnau

There is less public discourse on standardized testing today than a few years ago. This comes, partially at least, from President Donald Trump’s penchant for using twitter. His nearly daily tweets often chaotically careen from one topic to another.

Trump uses his twitter account to comment on issues like ACA, security, jobs, guns, taxes, foreign affairs, and Medicare/Medicaid. Trump tweets receive continuing media coverage. If he deems the media accounts insufficiently deferential to him, he unleashes a torrent of short and scathing remarks.

Education has been addressed by Trump and the GOP. In his inaugural address Trump referred to schools as “flush with cash.” He promoted cuts in school funding as a means to reduce federal budget shortfalls. Yet he also endorsed vouchers that enable parents to use public school money to enroll their children in private schools, including religious ones. If enacted, these measures that slash education spending and that subsidize private schools, would constitute an assault on public education.

Now modern standardized testing has been around for more than fifty years, and it has become the primary vehicle for assessing schools. Most of the current momentum for standardized testing in schools started with passage of the No Child Behind act in 2002 which received bipartisan support. This law mandated annual student testing in reading, science, and math for every state, with sanctions ranging from closure to placement on a watch list if a school fell short of the unattainable goal of 100% proficiency by 2014.

Schools struggled to meet these NCLB guidelines. The NCLB turned standardized testing into a big business. Some wealthy individuals and large corporations eagerly lined their pockets with public money.

Since the passage of NCLB act in 2002, the rigidity of the law’s mandates faced an avalanche of criticism from parents, unions, teachers, neighborhoods, and faith-based organizations. Attempts at the federal level to quell the storm largely failed. Finally, in December 2015, Congress replaced the NCLB with the Every Child Succeeds Act. Some of the ECSA reforms scaled back the most punitive portions of the NCLB. But testing remains the main factor in school rankings.

Standardized testing has created winners and losers. In economically and racially stratified school systems, the obsession with testing and data fuels the pressure on schools to operate more like corporate enterprises than community institutions. In more affluent communities, the new federal money is used to update facilities, increase teacher pay, and attract more students.

Today, around two-thirds of student achievement is a product of out-of-school factors, and among the most powerful of those is economic status. About a third of all public school students now come from low-income families. Poverty means black and Hispanic children often score lower on tests than white kids, not because of bad teachers and a lack of charter schools and school choice, but because of a basic lack of funding.

Studies indicate that poverty is the largest single cause of the student achievement gap. Inequalities of race, class, educational opportunity, and school funding result in disparate test scores. English language learners and those with disabilities face even greater challenges.

Teachers are often marginalized in the drive for standards and testing. Ironically this means ignoring those most familiar with education issues in favor of those with no direct classroom experience.

Rather than looking at schools as commercial ventures, we need public policies that bolster schools as intellectually vibrant places that encourage inquiry-based learning, that respect educators, that welcome parents, and that treat students with dignity.


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