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Standardized testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The tests are written by huge corporations. (Photo: Steven Singer/CC)

Economists Worry Covid-19 May End Standardized Testing Altogether

However, test scores are effectively useless.

Steven Singer

The sky is falling for standardized test enthusiasts.

Economists Paul Bruno and Dan Goldhaber published a paper this month worrying that the Coronavirus pandemic may increase pressure to end high stakes testing once and for all.

The paper is called "Reflections on What Pandemic-Related State Test Waiver Requests Suggest About the Priorities for the Use of Tests." It was written for The National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER)—a Walton funded, pro standardized testing policy concern.

It's easy to see why Bruno (who also taught middle school) and Goldhaber (who did not) are distressed.

Last school year President Joe Biden forced districts nationwide to give standardized assessments despite the raging Covid-19 pandemic.

For a third year in a row, standardized testing could be yet another unnecessary hurdle for students already overburdened with trauma.

Schools could barely keep their doors open and conduct in-person classes. Many educators were still teaching their students on-line or both on-line and in-person at the same time. Hundreds of teachers died from the virus. Thousands of students have lost parents, relatives or became sick, themselves.

Yet the Biden administration refused to give them any relief from the burden of standardized testing as the previous administration had just a year before.

And if increasing cases of the even more contagious Delta Variant continue to spread in 2021-22 while the last 30% of American adults are reluctant to get the vaccine, the situation could be even worse this spring.

For a third year in a row, standardized testing could be yet another unnecessary hurdle for students already overburdened with trauma. Would Biden double down on last year's mistake or finally see the error of his ways?

The result has been an overwhelming backlash against the already unpopular education policy.

In their paper, Bruno and Goldhaber looked at last year's waiver requests asking for permission to cancel or modify statewide exams in 11 states and the District of Columbia.

Only the District of Columbia's waiver was granted. All other states had to give the exams, but there was much leeway in how and when.

In the most revealing part of the paper, the economists explain why they think the US Department of Education seems to have refused blanket waivers last year:

"We speculate that there was concern that even temporarily waiving statewide tests would give momentum to those advocating for the elimination of testing all together. That is, [the US Department of Education] USDOE (and perhaps states that did not request that common assessments be waived) may be less interested in what happens with testing this year than worried about a slippery slope toward increasingly lax testing requirements." [Emphasis mine]

So refusing testing waivers wasn't about the need for last year's scores. It wasn't about making sure struggling students get resources. It was about ensuring that high stakes testing would go on for years to come.

In other words, it was about politics.

Speaking of which, the report then becomes focused on advice for standardized testing advocates to combat mounting pressure to end these mandated federal assessments.

If the public doesn't see the value in the tests, Bruno and Goldhaber say, policymakers must explain why the tests are important, and not just in generalities. They must explicitly show how standardized test scores improve education and help specific students.

They write:

"We encourage policymakers to think carefully, explicitly, and publicly about how they have tailored their standardized testing policies to achieve various diagnostic, research, and accountability objectives. This will help to ensure that standardized tests have benefits for more schools and students and will bolster fragile political support for statewide tests."

However, nowhere in the entire paper do Bruno and Goldhaber actually do this, themselves.

How do standardized tests help students?

That's exactly the question at stake here.

In short, I would argue as I have countless times before that they DO NOT help students.

They DO NOT help allocate resources to struggling students.

They DO NOT help diagnose student learning difficulties.
They DO NOT even do a good job of showing what students have learned.

If the authors had good counterarguments, now would have been a good time.

The authors do say that standardized test scores are predictive of latter student outcomes but they ignore whether other assessments or factors are MORE predictive.

Yes, students with high test scores often graduate, excel in college or trade schools, etc. However, the same can be said with classroom grades. In fact, classroom grades are even more accurate.

This just makes sense. Classroom grades are based on at least 180 days of formal and informal assessment. Standardized tests are merely a snapshot of a few days work.

However, even more predictive is child poverty. The rich kids usually do much better than the poor kids. Same with race, class and the funding each student receives at his or her school.

If you want to help students, that's where you need to begin—equitable resource allocation. Make sure all students have what they need to succeed, and realize that the more poverty you have, the greater the need, the greater the resources necessary.

Test scores are effectively useless.

If the only hope for testing is for cheerleaders to prove the policy's efficacy, then have at it. Testing opponents have been demanding substantive answers to that question for decades.

To paraphrase Motown singer Edwin Starr:

"Testing! HUH!

What is it good for? ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!"

And while you're struggling to answer that question in the positive, make sure to explain why an assessment strategy designed by eugenicists is the best way to judge today's children.

Standardized tests literally were invented to justify bias. They were designed to prove that higher income, higher class, white people were entitled to more than poorer, lower class, brown people. Any defense of the assessments today must explain how the contemporary variety escapes the essential racist assumptions the entire project is based on.

Standardized testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. The tests are written by huge corporations. They are graded by the same corporations. And when students fail, it is often the exact same corporations who provide the remediation materials, software and teacher training.

That is why the Biden administration didn't waive the tests last year. That's also why economists like Bruno and Goldhaber are sounding the alarm.

This is about saving an endangered cash cow. It's protecting the goose that lays golden eggs.

It has nothing to do with helping children learn.

And there is no better image to prove that than forcing kids to take a meaningless test during a global pandemic.


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Steven Singer

Steven Singer

Steven Singer is a husband, father, teacher, blogger and education advocate. Singer is an 8th grade Language Arts teacher in western Pennsylvania. He is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and has an MAT from the University of Pittsburgh. He is Director of the Research and Blogging Committee for the Badass Teachers Association. He is co-founder of the Pennsylvania-based education budget advocacy group T.E.A.C.H. (Tell Everyone All Cuts Hurt). He often writes at his own blog, gadflyonthewallblog.com.

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