If Standardized Tests Were Going to Succeed, They Would Have Done So By Now
Standardized tests were supposed to be the magic remedy to fix our public schools.
They were supposed to make all students proficient in reading and math.
They were supposed to ensure all students were getting the proper resources.
They were supposed to ensure all teachers were doing their best for their students.
But after more than four decades, standardized tests have not fulfilled a single one of these promises.
In fact, all they’ve done is make things worse at public schools while creating a lucrative market for testing companies and school privatization concerns.
So why haven’t we gotten rid of them?
To answer that question, we have to understand how we got here in the first place – where these kinds of assessments came from in the US and how they became the guiding policy of our public schools.
Standardized testing has been around in this country since the 1920s.
It was the product of the pseudoscientific eugenicist movement that tried to justify white supremacy with bad logic and biased premises.
Psychologists Robert Yerkes and Carl Brigham invented these assessments to justify privileging upper-class whites over lower class immigrants, Blacks and Hispanics. That was always the goal and they tailored their tests to find that result.
From the very start, it had serious consequences for public policy. The results were used to rationalize the forced sterilization of 60,000 to 70,000 people from groups with low test scores, thus preventing them from “polluting” the gene pool.
However, Brigham’s greatest claim to fame was the creation of the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT) to keep such undesirables out of higher education. These tests were not central to school curriculum and mainly used as gatekeepers with the SAT in particular still in wide use today.
The problem then – as now – is that standardized tests aren’t very good assessments. They work okay for really simple things like rudimentary math. However, the more complex a skill you’re assessing, the more inadequate the tests. For example, imagine just trying to have a conversation with someone where your only choices of reply were limited to four canned responses. That’s a multiple-choice assessment. The result is a testing system that selects against the poor and minorities. At best, it reproduces the economic and racial disparities of society. At worst, it ensures those disparities will continue into the next generation.
That isn’t to say the system went unchallenged. By the 1960s, the junk science and leaps of logic behind standardized testing were obvious and people began fighting back in court. Black plaintiffs began winning innumerable lawsuits against the testing industry.
Perhaps the most famous case is Hobson v. Hansen in 1967, which was filed on behalf of a group of Black students in Washington, DC. The court ruled that the policy of using tests to assign students to tracks was racially biased because the tests were standardized to a White, middleclass group.
Nevertheless, just as the tests were beginning to disappear, radical economists like Milton Friedman saw them as an opportunity to push their own personal agenda. More than anything, these extreme capitalists wanted to do away with almost all public services – especially public schools. They hoped the assessments could be repurposed to undermine these institutions and usher in an era of private education through measures like school vouchers.
So in the 1980s, the Reagan administration published “A Nation at Risk,” a campfire tale about how America’s public schools were failing. Thus, the authors argued we needed standardized testing to make American children competitive in a global marketplace.
However, the report, which examined test scores from the past 20 years, was misleading and full of statistical and mathematical errors.
For instance, it concluded that average student test scores had decreased but didn’t take into account that scores had actually increased in every demographic group. It compared two decades worth of test scores, but failed to mention that more students took the test at the end of that period than at the beginning, and many of the newer students were disadvantaged. In other words, it compared test scores between an unrepresentative group at the beginning of the comparison with a more representative group at the end and concluded that these oranges were nothing like the apples they started with. Well, duh.
Most people weren’t convinced by the disaster capitalism at work here, but the report marks a significant moment in the standardization movement. In fact, this is really where our modern era began.
Slowly governors and state legislators began drinking the Kool-aide and mandating standardized testing in schools along with corporate-written academic standards the tests were supposed to assess. It wasn’t everywhere, but the model for test-and-punish was in place.
It took an additional two decades, until 2001, for President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation to require standardized testing in ALL public schools.
With bipartisan support, Bush tied federal funding of schools to standardized test performance and annual academic progress. And from then on, the die was cast. This policy has been upheld through both Republican and Democratic regimes.
In fact, standardized testing intensified under President Barack Obama and was continued with few changes by Donald Trump and even Joe Biden. Far from changing course, Biden broke a campaign promise to discontinue the tests. Once in office, he thought testing was so important that he forced schools to give the assessments during the Covid-19 pandemic when districts had trouble even keeping school buildings open.
And that brings us to today.
From the 1980s to 2022 we’ve had wide scale standardized testing in our schools. That’s roughly 40 years where the entirety of what is done in public school has been organized around these assessments. They drive the curriculum and are the ultimate benchmark by which success or failure is judged. If this policy was ever going to work, it would have done so by now.
However, it has achieved NONE of its stated goals.
NCLB specifically stated that all children would be proficient in reading and math by 2014. That has not happened. Despite spending billions of dollars on remediation and completely reorganizing our schools around the assessments, test scores have remained mostly static or even decreased.
The law also justified its existence with claims to equity. Somehow taking resources away from districts with low test scores was supposed to increase funding at the neediest schools. Unsurprisingly this did not happen. All it did was further increase the funding gap between rich and poor schools and between wealthy and disadvantaged students.
NCLB also championed the idea that competing for test scores would result in better teachers. However, that didn’t happen either. Instead, educators were forced to narrow the curriculum to cover mostly what was assessed, reduce creativity and critical thinking, and teachers who served poor and minority students were even punished for doing so.
If the purpose of standardized testing was all the things the law purported, then it was a decades long failure. It is the policy equivalent of slamming your head into a wall repeatedly and wondering why you aren’t moving forward. (And where did this headache come from?)
If, however, the purpose of standardized testing was to fulfill Friedman’s privatization dreams, then it was a resounding success. Public schools still persist, but they have been drained, weakened and in many ways subverted.
Look at the evidence.
Standardized testing has grown from a $423 million industry before 2001 to a multi-billion dollar one today. If we add in test prep, new text books, software, and consultancy, that figure easily tops the trillion dollar mark.
Huge corporations make the tests, grade the tests and then sell remediation materials when students fail. It’s a huge scam.
But that’s not the only business created by this policy. Test and punish opened entirely new markets that hadn’t existed before. The emphasis on test scores and the “failing schools” narrative stoked unwarranted distrust in the public school system and a demand for more privatized alternatives.
Chief among these was charter schools.
The first charter school law was passed in 1991 in Minnesota. It allowed for the creation of new schools that would have special agreements (or charters) with states or districts to run without having to abide by all the usual regulations. Thus, the school could go without an elected board, pocket public money as private profit, etc. The bill was quickly copied and spread to legislatures across the country by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).
Today, there are charter schools in 43 states and the District of Columbia educating nearly three million students. Charter schools enroll about 6% of the students in the country.
However, charter schools are rife with fraud and malfeasance. For instance, more than a quarter of charter schools close within 5 years of opening. By year 15, roughly 50% of charter schools close. That’s not a stable model of public education. It’s a get rich quick scheme. And since these types of schools are free from the kinds of regulations, democratic governance and/or transparency that keeps authentic public schools in check, another charter school scandal pops up almost every day.
But let’s not forget school vouchers. Before high stakes testing, the idea of using public money to pay for private or parochial schools was widely considered unconstitutional. Now about 4% of US students go to private and parochial schools some of which are funded with school vouchers. This is an option in 32 states and the District of Columbia, and more than 600,000 students participated in a voucher, scholarship tax credit or education savings account program last school year, according to EdChoice, a pro-voucher and school choice group.
There is little evidence that school vouchers actually improve student performance, however, and there’s even evidence that students who receive vouchers to attend private schools may do worse on tests than they would have if they had stayed in authentic public schools.
Moreover, the cost of attending one of these private or parochial schools isn’t completely covered by the voucher. On average, vouchers offer about $4,600 a year, according to American Federation for Children, which supports voucher programs. The average annual cost of tuition at a private K-12 school nationwide is $12,350, according to Educationdata.org, though that can be much more expensive in some states. In Connecticut, for example, the average tuition is almost $24,000. So vouchers only REDUCE the cost of attending private or parochial schools for a few kids while siphoning away tax dollars that should go to educating all kids.
In short, they’re subsidies for wealthier kids at the expense of the middle class and disadvantaged.
Without standardized testing, it is impossible to imagine such an increase in privatization.
High stakes testing is a Trojan horse. It is a way to secretly undermine and weaken public schools so that testing corporations, charter schools and voucher schools can thrive.
Judged by its own metrics of success, standardized testing is an abject failure. Judged by the metric of business and school privatization it is a rousing success.
And that’s why it has been so hard to discontinue.
This is corporate welfare at its finest, and the people getting rich off our tax dollars won’t allow us to turn off the flow of funding without a fight.
On the right, policymakers are often boldly honest about their goals to bolster privatization over public schools. On the left, policymakers still cling to the failed measures of success testing has not been able to meet time-and-again.
However, both groups support the same system. They only give different reasons.
It is past time to wake up and smell the flowers.
If we want to ensure education dollars go to education and not profiteers, we need to end standardized testing.
If we want to help students learn to the best of their abilities, we need to stop gaslighting them with faulty measures of success or failure.
If we want to allow teachers to do the best for their students, we need to stop holding them back with antiquated eugenicist shackles.
And if we truly want to save our public school system, we have to stop propping up privatization.
In short, we need to end standardized testing.
The sooner, the better.
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