TESTING, TESTING, TESTING
The Biden administration chose a pro-testing advocate, Ian Rosenblum of Education Trust New York, to announce the decision that states must administer the federally mandated tests this spring. Miguel Cardona has not yet been confirmed as Secretary of Education nor has Cindy Marten been confirmed as Deputy Secretary. Who made this decision? Joe Biden? Jill Biden? Ian Rosenblum, who has not yet been confirmed as Deputy Assistant Secretary? (The Assistant Secretary has not even been announced.) Is the Obama administration back?
Joe Biden said unequivocally at a Public Education Forum in Pittsburgh when he was campaigning that he would end the federal mandate for standardized testing. Denisha Jones, lawyer, teacher educator, board member of Defending the Early Years, and the Network for Public Education, asked candidate Biden if he would end standardized testing. Watch his answer here.
[Note: Cardona was confirmed on March 1, 2021]
If you’re interested, surf the internet to find other stories about how Biden has broken this particular promise…but that’s not the purpose of today’s blog post. I’m more concerned about how the results of the tests will be used.
THE PURPOSE OF THE TESTS
What’s the purpose of the state standardized tests?
Since the state tests were instituted, they have been used by privatizers to illustrate how public schools in the United States are “failing.” The truth is, however, that the tests mostly measure family income, and the concept of “failing” American schools is a myth.
During No Child Left Behind, state standardized tests were given to rank schools to determine which were worthy of praise and which were worthy of punishment. “Failing schools” — i.e. those schools with high levels of poverty which regularly scored lower on standardized tests — were punished with closure, state takeover, and replacement of staff.
During Race to the Top, the test was used to do the same as during No Child Left Behind but added “failing teachers” to the punishment list. Tests were (and in some places, still are) invalidly used to evaluate teachers. Those teachers who taught in “failing schools” were deemed to be “failing teachers” and would be subject to job loss or other punishment. In addition, Arne Duncan’s Education Department virtually abandoned so-called “failing schools” and emphasized opening charter schools.
The Every Child Succeeds Act, which we’re currently living under, has eased some of the punishments (it eliminated the requirement to evaluate teachers using state tests, for example), but the tests are still required every year in grades three through eight.
The educational reasons for testing include (but are not limited to) things like the diagnosis of students’ learning and analysis of curriculum, but there are a pile of other issues with standardized tests, however, that make their value questionable.
THIRD GRADE PUNISHMENT
One of the more damaging uses of standardized tests has been to determine whether third graders’ reading achievement is sufficient for them to be promoted to fourth grade. Currently about two-dozen states and the District of Columbia have laws that either require or allow for the retention of third-graders who fail a standardized reading test.
Third graders should be retained, the argument goes, because reading is different in fourth grade. In the primary grades, one learns to read. Beginning in fourth grade one “reads to learn.” While this might be true, depending on a school’s curriculum, there’s no evidence that retaining kids in third grade helps.
In a recent blog post, Peter Greene, at Curmudgucation, discussed another argument for third-grade retention. That is, that third graders who read well have a better chance of graduating from high school. Therefore, if we have third-graders who don’t read well, we need to retain them in third grade until they do…
…”Double Jeopardy” ties third grade reading proficiency (more or less as defined by NAEP) to high school graduation as well as tying both to poverty.
Without getting into too detail, the report finds that students who are not reading proficiently in third grade are more likely not to graduate, students who are poor for at least a year are less likely to graduate, and students who are both are even less likely to end up with a diploma. Black and Hispanic students who lagged in third grade reading skills were also less likely to graduate.
As Greene points out, they’re confusing correlation with causation.
Hernandez has identified correlations, not causations. Research might well show that third grade shoe size is a good predictor of adult height, but it does not follow that making third graders wear bigger shoes, or making them stay in third grade until their feet are big enough, will lead individual students to grow taller, nor raise the average height of adults.
Retention in grade based on the state standardized test, or for any reason, is a remediation method that doesn’t do what it purports to do. The “additional time to learn” argument has been disproven by the fact that after two or three years any academic advantage to retention disappears. Most students who are “behind” when they are in third grade are “behind” when they get to high school.
Retention in grade has been studied for more than a century and it has yet to be proven to be an effective method of helping students improve. At worst, retention increases the chance that a student will drop out of high school. At best, retention doesn’t do permanent damage to a student’s mental and emotional health.
Studies with the strongest research methods compare students who were retained with similar students who were not retained. They ask whether repeating a grade makes a difference in achievement as well as personal and social adjustment over the short run and the long run. Although individual studies can be cited to support any conclusion, overall the preponderance of evidence argues that students who repeat a grade are no better off, and are sometimes worse off, than if they had been promoted with their classmates.
TESTING DURING A PANDEMIC
You’ve probably noticed that the world is in the midst of a global pandemic. As such, schools have been closed, opened, closed again, half-open…in short, trying to find workarounds in a sometimes futile attempt to educate their students.
Some students have been on a hybrid schedule…in school part-time and at home part-time. Some students have been at home, working from a computer, for an entire year. Other students have been “lost”; their school systems have been unable to locate them. Parents often have difficulties juggling the online education of more than one child with their home and work responsibilities. Everyone wants students back in school. Students. Teachers. Parents. Everyone.
Given the problems associated with school over the past year, what do you think this year’s Spring standardized tests will show?
It’s absolutely likely that more students than usual will score below state cut scores on their achievement tests this year. It’s further likely that those students who are the most vulnerable will score the lowest. How will those test scores be used?
- Will more students be subjected to retention because they “fell behind” during the pandemic?
- Will state Departments of Education fail to adjust cut scores (because those cut scores are usually arbitrary choices) so that fewer kids “fail” the tests?
- Will states continue grade retention practices despite the challenges to curriculum expectations during the pandemic?
“Yes” answers to any of the above questions are what worry me about giving this year’s mandated tests, because pro-privatization states (aka Republican-dominated) will no-doubt use the results of the tests to bad-mouth public education and public school teachers. They’ll blame the teachers unions (indeed, they already are), the Democrats, or local school boards for the low test scores. They’ll use the low scores to pass even more anti-public education bills that divert public dollars into the accounts of religious schools and charter operators. They will renew their accusations of “failing schools” and demand more “accountability” while ignoring real factors leading to low student achievement.
Cancel federally mandated standardized tests for this year (and next year, and the next…). They don’t help and they’re a waste of time and money.
Provide resources to schools and teachers so they can meet the needs of their students. Let teachers…the education professionals…make educational decisions, not legislators.
And here in Indiana, divert public money for education back to public schools for a change.