There’s a lot of disparity in how the world is responding to Covid right now.
France and Germany are entering yet another period of lockdown right now while the United States is opening back up. All three countries are in the process of administering vaccines and things seem to be doing well on that front, so why the different responses?
The United States in particular is not just opening up, but many places are really intent on re-instating face-to-face school again. All over the nation schools are implementing plans to bring students back into the classrooms, and notably, this is just in time for the standardized tests that mark every school year. Last year, the Trump administration suspended standardized tests across the nation, but this year, no such accommodation has been allowed. Students in America will be expected to sit for tests to see whether they meet the “standards” for the year, regardless of the remarkable circumstances of the last year. Some groups, like the NEA, which is the National Education Association, have organized to oppose these tests this year, but so far, their efforts are to no avail.
First, we must consider the immediate, medical realities of insisting on face-to-face school.
The strain of the virus that has become dominant in the U.S is the B.1.1.7 variant. This is the variant that was first discovered in the UK. It is highly contagious and is spreading quickly everywhere. One of the things that makes this variation of the virus different is its effect on children. In the beginning of this crisis the common wisdom was that children were relatively safe. They didn’t often get covid and when they did it was mild. The B.1.1.7 variant is different. In some areas of the country cases are rising among all age groups, but the largest number of new COVID-19 cases is among children ages 10-19.
Brenda Goodman writes, cases among younger children — infants through 9-year-olds — are also going up, increasing by more than 230% since February 19, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. In Minnesota, on a recent call with reporters, Ruth Lynfield, MD, state epidemiologist, said the B.1.1.7 variant, which has rapidly risen in the state, has a higher attack rate among children than earlier versions of the virus, meaning they’re more likely to be infected when exposed. Lynfield called children the “leading edge” of covid infections right now.
So schools may not be the safe places they were once thought to be. I know in my small town for the last year we have been getting weekly emails about covid cases in the schools. There are a few confirmed in the schools every week. It’s certainly not a crisis, but it’s there, and it’s consistent. This is when students are only in class two days a week with 1/3 of the student body there with them. With the B.1.1.7 variant effecting children in unprecedented ways I’m not convinced now is the time to bring all of the students back together in one place – especially if one of the reasons for doing so is so they can take some standardized tests.
I say this, because the standardized tests are, quite frankly, a bad idea in the best of times. At this juncture, when disparities in schooling and access to education and educational resources have been accentuated for the last year and when so many students have been struggling with the realities of online learning, standardized tests just seem punitive.
But let’s consider the standardized test in general. What does it do? What purpose does it serve?
Ostensibly, it is to make sure that all students across the board are being held to the same standards. It is to make sure that schools everywhere are at the same level. This may seem like a practical and even noble goal, but any educator can tell you that it doesn’t work in practice. Schools in different states, and even schools from different areas within the same states are at completely different levels when it comes to expectations. Testing doesn’t change that; it just means that more kids fail in some areas and more time is spent teaching the test in some areas as opposed to content. The first, most basic goal of the standardized tests just works to stratify schools, not equalize them.
Proponents claim that standardized tests offer some objective measurements of education and can tell us what areas of education need improvement. They give us hard data to understand what students are learning and where students are lagging. But the truth is that these tests really only show us which students are good at taking tests. They are not used to show progress, they are just used to get a one-shot image of a student’s skill or knowledge level, so they are ultimately not giving us anything useful pedagogically. And as for the tests themselves, they really only show test preparedness – which can be influenced by anything from how much sleep or food you got before the test, to what stereotypes you have been influenced by in your life up to that point.
Which leads us to another element of standardized testing: race, class, and sex. Proponents tell us that these tests give us helpful data about students in marginalized groups. This data can be used to aid those students as we try to equalize the educational playing field. But the truth is that these tests are inherently racist, classist, and sexist. Wealthy, white students tend to do better on these tests because they have the requisite background knowledge that the tests require in order to answer the questions. These tests assume certain things, and those things are generally a middle-to-upper class background. So, if a student is required to think about cause and effect in a reading example, they may say, “Well, Joey got home, and he was hungry – what did he do?” If a student deals with hunger at home, he may say, “Joey stayed hungry.” If a student is from a middle-class background, they may say, “Joey got a snack.”
There is also the nature and history of standardized tests in general. According to the NEA,
In his 1923 book, A Study of American Intelligence, psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham wrote that African-Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic, and/or cultural spectrum. Testing, he believed, showed the superiority of “the Nordic race group” and warned of the “promiscuous intermingling” of new immigrants in the American gene pool.
Furthermore, the education system he argued was in decline and “will proceed with an accelerating rate as the racial mixture becomes more and more extensive.”
Shortly after the publication of “A Study of American Intelligence” in 1923, the College Board commissioned Carl Brigham to lead development of the SAT.
Brigham had helped to develop aptitude tests for the U.S. Army during World War I and – commissioned by the College Board – was influential in the development of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). At the time, he and other social scientists considered the SAT a new psychological test and a supplement to existing college board exams.
The SAT debuted in 1926, joined by the ACT (American College Testing) in the 1950s. By the 21st century, the SAT and ACT were just part of a barrage of tests students may face before reaching college. The College Board also offers SAT II tests, designed for individual subjects ranging from biology to geography.
Brigham also pioneered the Advanced Placement examinations. These marathon four-hour Advanced Placement (AP) examinations—which some universities accept for students who want to opt out of introductory college-level classes—are widespread across the country: In 2019, more than 1.24 million public high school students took an AP exam.
So basically, the SAT, the beginning of widespread standardized testing in the US, was designed to segregate the Army.
These tests are also somewhat gendered. Girls tend to do better on open-ended questions while boys do better on multiple-choice. So these tests are literally designed for white, middle-class males to succeed while others will lag. So any claims that they provide meaningful data about marginalized groups is woefully misinformed at best, or worse, malicious.
This is playing out right in front of our eyes right now, this very year. Many colleges and universities suspended the SAT and/or ACT requirements this year and prestigious schools across the nations saw a huge surge in applications. UC Berkeley’s applications went up 28% and Harvard’s went up a whopping 42%. Cornell’s applications were up by about 33%. Students who felt they had the grades and the extra-curriculars and could write the essays but would be kept out by the test scores suddenly felt they had a shot. This makes these schools way more competitive and could make them way more diverse, too.
Another reason people often laud standardized tests is because they bring all classes up to the same level, but in truth what happens is many classes lose time from content and end up teaching the test.
Those not in education often don’t really understand what that means. Teaching to the test is when you don’t teach concepts or content, but you teach specific questions and test-taking techniques and skills. Teaching to the test is a matter of learning how to answer specific types of questions and take specific types of tests as opposed to mastering fundamentals. As James Popham describes,
This kind of instruction teaches to the knowledge or skills represented by a test. But if a teacher uses the actual test items in classroom activities or uses items similar to the test items, the teacher is engaging in a very different kind of teaching. For clarity, I will refer to teaching that is focused directly on test items or on items much like them as item-teaching. I will refer to teaching that is directed at the curricular content (knowledge or skills) represented by test items as curriculum-teaching.
In item-teaching, teachers organize their instruction either around the actual items found on a test or around a set of look-alike items. For instance, imagine that a high-stakes test includes the multiple-choice subtraction item “Gloria has 14 pears but ate 3.” The test-taker must choose from four choices the number of pears that Gloria has now. Suppose the teacher revised this item slightly: “Joe has 14 bananas but ate 3.” The test-taker chooses from the same four answers, ordered slightly differently. Only the kind of fruit and the gender of the fruit-eater have been altered in this clone item; the cognitive demand is unchanged.
Curriculum-teaching, however, requires teachers to direct their instruction toward a specific body of content knowledge or a specific set of cognitive skills represented by a given test. I am not thinking of the loose manner in which some teachers assert that they are “teaching toward the curriculum” even though that curriculum consists of little more than a set of ill-defined objectives or a collection of vague and numerous content standards. In curriculum-teaching, a teacher targets instruction at test-represented content rather than at test items.
This produces an unhealthy focus on excessive repetition of simple, isolated skills, sometimes referred to as “drill and kill,” and limits the teacher’s ability to focus on competency and general understanding of the curriculum.
Teaching to the test is teaching information and then giving a test about the information at the end of the unit. Typically, these tests aim to make sure that students have memorized a series of procedures, rather than making sure that the students fully understand what they are doing; in other words, these tests are a measure of a student’s arbitrary knowledge rather than their ability to critically think.
One of the biggest issues with this kind of testing that most people are familiar with is the notion that teachers can be assessed by how their students perform on the tests. This is kind of a cumulation of all of these problems. If teachers teach populations that deal with problems that might make them unprepared, such as hunger or racism, that teacher is automatically at a disadvantage. Tying teacher evaluations to the tests also leads to teaching to the test which makes for bad pedagogy and poor learning environments for the students. There is absolutely no good that comes from tying teaching evals to one-time tests that are not used to show progress.
The University of Texas at Austin found a better way to use tests results to help with teacher evals, but they had to divorce the idea that students had to pass the tests from those results. Students were tested and teachers were evaluated on whether the student progressed by any measurable amount, not by whether they met the standards of the grade. So if a 6th grader started the year reading at a 3rd grade level and finished the year reading at a 4th grade level, that student may not have met standards, but that student had made progress, so the teacher was evaluated positively. This is, however, contrary to the way standardized tests are generally meant to be used. The idea is to see whether students meet a standard. Not whether they have progressed.
Ask any college professor and they will tell you that they have seen the results of an emphasis on standardized testing and this kind of teaching since the installation of No Child Left Behind twenty years ago. Students come to college less prepared for the kinds of complex thinking and critical questions they are expected to be able to address because they have spent all of their K-12 years focused on nailing multiple choice questions that require no critical thought but are simple matters of reading comprehension, basic computation, or worse, understanding the format of the test. College students are easily overwhelmed by questions that require an argument or answers that are not provided. Prompts that require any critical thought or creativity cause a great deal of anxiety for a number of our students because they are so used to having everything laid out for them in every detail.
Now, one thing I want to be very clear about is that I am not griping about young people and how they are lazy or ignorant or entitled. I have been in a college classroom as some kind of instructor since 2003 and in all of that time I have never bought into the stereotypes about millennials or Gen Z. I don’t believe they are any worse than any generation that has come before. I DO believe the educational system (and any number of other systems) have failed them, however. Schools and the politicians that have created laws that run them have failed these students and made them unable to ready themselves for college, and even the adult world. I don’t blame young people for struggling in college. I blame adults for making college impossible.
Finally, we have already noted that standardized testing is geared toward a specific segment of the population – but it is even more particular than that. Standardized testing is, by nature, crafted so that people can gather information on averages. They are, literally, made for the average student. Students who struggle in general will find standardized tests difficult, and that is supposed to be one of the things standardized tests tell us – what students are struggling with what. But there is another possible outcome that is often ignored – students who excel, those who are gifted or are exceptional, may well struggle with standardized tests as well. A student who thinks holistically, conceptually, and is by nature a problem-solver might find the standard four-option multiple choice very frustrating and difficult. Those students who are a deviation or two ABOVE the norm may either breeze through the test with no problem or may really struggle with the idea that there is one singular answer defined by a multiple choice. They may also really struggle with prescribed, formulaic writing. Standardized testing is just as likely to penalize a student for being a gifted, divergent thinker as it is for penalizing a student who struggles in school.
On some level, standardized testing is a norm in any class. Technically, any time a teacher gives a quiz that expects all students to give the same answer, that’s a standardized test. But those tend to be curricular, specific, and limited to a particular population. When these things become large-scale and generalized to huge populations the problems become manifest.
I JUST got the email on Monday that New York has been denied the waiver for the mandated standardized tests for the year. So after the most disruptive, challenging, frustrating year of our lives students are going to be expected to sit and take a test to see if they meet some arbitrary, largely age-inappropriate standards that we know are racist, classist, and will be used to penalize teachers who can’t do anything about it. This situation is absolutely outrageous.
I don’t know if there is anything that can be done about it this year, but this is something worth talking about. Contact the NEA or the national PTA or PTSA and see what they are doing about standardized tests. Sign some petitions. Contact your representatives. Learn what you can about the tests in your state and how they are administered.
And support the kids in your life. Remind them that these things are just that – tests. Not the end of the world. Encourage them to think outside the test. Read with them or give them books. See how you can support a school or a classroom or a teacher. Let your college or university know that they don’t NEED the SAT or the ACT.
The thing about standardized assessment is it is the enemy of diversity. And right now what we need is diversity in all its forms.
Music in this episode is “Fearless First” by Kevin MacLeod at https://incompetech.filmmusic.io/song/3742-fearless-first.