There are several myths about standardized tests that have become, in the minds of politicians and on the pages of newspapers, generally accepted as truth. Standardized tests will: help parents to know how well schools and their children are doing, aid and inform instruction, be an authentic assessment of our children’s progress, hold teachers and school systems accountable, and finally, improve our ‘failing’ educational system.
Let’s start with the first misconception: standardized tests help parents to know how well their schools and their children are performing. I’m sorry, but if you, as a parent, don’t know how well your child is doing in school, then you must never have been to a parent-teacher conference, seen a report card, helped your child with her homework, or scanned any of her finished work. The same goes for judging or evaluating the quality of your child’s school. Go to the school. Volunteer. Talk to the staff and your child. Sit in on her classes. Be active in the school community. If these actions don’t tell you more than a grade from the state, then you must not understand that you can’t boil an entire school—students and staff—or an entire district down to a letter.
Supposedly, the four PARCC English tests that my freshmen will have to take this year are going to aid my instruction. This is the worst of the falsehoods bandied around by testing companies, school reformers, and politicians. I will not get the results of those tests back until January of next year. Think about that. A full eight months later. How, exactly, are these results going to help me teach? By the time I get the scores, those students will be halfway through their sophomore year, and they will be on the cusp of yet another round of tests. The scores, when we get them, tell us very little. They tell us, simply, how well our students are able to figure out the answers to questions that have little practical value in their lives.
The only thing standardized tests assess is how well your child takes standardized tests. The only way to authentically assess your child’s learning is by spending 180 days with them, not by looking at bubbled in answers to intentionally confusing questions and hastily scribbled essays on material that has no relevance to your child’s life. As adults, we only read what has context in our lives—either for work or for pleasure. Children, however, are forced to read passages on subjects that mean nothing to them—they are reading about yachting or the history of late-19th century Afghan tribal politics. This is not only inauthentic, it is shameful. It is destroying our children’s love of reading.
Education today is data-driven. The data that we are using, however, does not truly measure a student’s learning or a teacher’s or school’s effectiveness. The tests are designed to be so difficult that 70% of students fail. And, high-poverty low-resource schools score lower on standardized tests than low-poverty high-resource schools. This is a researched fact. Unfortunately, high-stakes testing has done nothing to correct this constructed problem. In fact, standardized testing has exacerbated the deep divide in education opportunity and success in our nation. The schools that need the most are labeled failing. Teachers fired. Schools closed. Electives eliminated. In their place, we are putting for-profit public-financed charter schools staffed with inexperienced poorly-paid teachers armed with a test-prep based curriculum.
Whatever their reasons, I know these things to be true: if the politicians and the general public actually took the tests imposed on our children, then the truth about the unfairness of these tests would be revealed; if we allow testing companies and for-profit schools to create our education policy, then our children will become numbers on someone’s bottom line; if we do not stop making high-stakes decisions, stop judging and labeling schools and teachers, and end the test and punish cycle in which we find ourselves, then we will push teachers out of the profession and take all of the joy and fun out of learning for our children.
Public education is not failing. Our government is failing public education. And, high-stakes standardized tests are just one of the many tools being used to undermine and privatize an educational system that at its best, can be a source of hope for every American and not simply a source of profit for a few.