The debate about standardized testing for students in 2021 is continuing to rage, or at least continue on a slow, endless simmer.
Opponents of the Biden administration’s insistence on testing have argued that testing will use time that could be better spent educating, that the tests are too limited, that the information will not help students, that policymakers have historically used the data for punishment rather than assistance, that the whole business is about making money for test manufacturers. They question the whole idea of “behind”—behind what, exactly? They have raised the argument (perhaps even over-raised it) that the testing process may “stigmatize an entire generation,” doing real and lasting harm to students.
Some supporters of testing have been leaned hard on marketing that emphasizes the dreaded Learning Loss, with every ed tech company on the block promising a solution. But while some test advocacy seems to be the result of disaster capitalism in search of an opportunity, many folks supporting the administration are doing so out of deep concern for educational equity in this country, while others believe that schools can only find their way back from the pandemic with hard data.
The argument in favor of collecting data is a compelling one. It is completely understandable that education leaders and policymakers and even editorial kibbitzers would like to have a clear, data-rich description of where students across the country are right now. There’s just one problem.
They can’t have it.
They certainly can’t get it from the Big Standardized Test. That’s in part because it will be anything but a standardized test. DC has been given a waiver based on the number of students attending school remotely, which means that other districts also qualify under the Education Department’s ideas about flexibility. New York City schools are the first to make the tests opt-in, meaning only the students who choose to take them will. Across the country, some students will take the test remotely, and some will take it in school. In Florida, long car lines have reportedly become a feature of parents driving their remote students to school buildings to take the test, which now has zero stakes for the students themselves. Some number of students across the country will opt out. Some will take a shorter version of the test. Some will test in the spring, and some in the fall. Other students will take the test carrying any number of traumas with them from home. And many students will take the test without the usual weeks of test prep, so that their answers will not reflect a lack of skills or knowledge, but a lack of familiarity with the language and expectations of the testing format itself. In short, nothing about the taking of the test will be standardized.
The 2021 tests will generate a spoonful of data dissolved in an ocean of noise. The tests will generate junk, not useful or usable data.
Nor will there be a useful framework into which the data can be plugged. Any comparison of 2021 data to where students are “supposed” to be requires data crunchers to extrapolate data from two years ago, creating test results that they imagine would have happened this year in a universe without a pandemic.
Nor will the scope of this junk data be what is required. A standardized test of math and reading will not provide any data about student progress in other subject areas, nor will it provide data about the students’ emotional state, how they’re holding up under the great or minimal stresses of their year, how their relationship with their school and education stands. Nor is there any readily available standardized assessment instrument that can generate that data accurately or quickly.
The data are out there—sort of. Teacher all across the country are doing what they always do, which is regularly assess where their students are academically and build relationships that allow them to gauge where their students are personally. But no—none of that will work to compare students within or across states.
The desire to accurately and specifically map the learning location of every child in the country, by school, district and state, is understandable, particularly with truckloads off money waiting to be deployed. But just because you want that map doesn’t mean that the complex information required can be known, quantified, or reduced to easy-to-manage numbers.
It is attractively tidy to imagine a world in which the current state of student learning can be measured, assigned a number, and turned into neatly actionable data that can, in turn, be plugged into a definitive action plan. But that’s not the world we live in. Reality is messy (especially so at the moment), and all the standardized testing in the world will not change that.
- Education notebook – Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette
- California – Ravenwoode: Offering appreciation to health, education officials – Lake County News
- Education News – Texarkana Gazette
- US Department of Education Releases “COVID-19 Handbook, Volume 2: Roadmap to Reopening Safely and Meeting All Students’ Needs” | US – U.S. Department of Education
- The more you learn, the more you earn: education and poverty alleviation in Thailand – UN News
- Dep’t of Education issues emergency order waiving test requirement for seniors, series of adjustments – Florida Politics
- D.C. mayor proposes boost in education spending as she calls on schools to fully reopen in the fall – The Washington Post
- Faculty invited to apply to General Education Scholar Program | Penn State University – Penn State News
- US Department of Education Announces More Biden-Harris Appointees | US – U.S. Department of Education