It’s Long Past Time to End the Tyranny of High-Stakes Testing in Public Education

When we sort children into “proficient” and “failing” categories based on test scores, we’re not solving the opportunity gaps that show up in public education — we’re just creating new ones.

Tenth grade high school student contemplates an answer as he takes the California Standards Testing (STAR) in Wilmington, California. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

When I taught at an alternative public school for kids with exceptional social-emotional, behavioral, and learning needs, one of my students — I’ll call him Dante — got As in every class he took. School staff would frequently elevate Dante’s extraordinary focus and commitment as an example for his peers.

In the spring of Dante’s senior year, his counselor informed him he’d earned the status of valedictorian. His beaming smile of pride after hearing the news affirmed everything I love about public education. When his mother found out, she burst into tears of joy.

Then, abruptly, we were informed that there had been a mistake. Because Dante’s exceptional learning needs made it impossible for him to pass the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) — the standardized tests that Massachusetts requires high school students to pass prior to graduation — he would not receive a diploma. Without a diploma, he couldn’t be valedictorian — even though, according to his grades and the unanimous judgment of his teachers, he clearly deserved the honor. A wave of incredulity rippled through the staff as we tried to resign ourselves to this obviously cruel, unfair reality. For Dante, the news was devastating.

Even before the “giant federal wrecking ball” (to borrow leading education policy analyst Diane Ravitch’s phrasing) known as education reform, evidence from diverse fields had demonstrated a scientific concept known as Campbell’s Law: the more we base social decision-making on a specific quantitative measure, the more likely it is that that measure will become distorted, ultimately corrupting the processes it’s intended to monitor.

Just so, in the two decades since Congress reauthorized the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) as George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), researchers have collected a mountain of data showing that in the long run, attaching high-stakes, or punishments, to student standardized test scores does not improve educational outcomes. Instead, it results in a host of perverse consequences, with poor, minority, and disabled kids like Dante experiencing the greatest harms. This last point makes a lot of sense when you consider that standardized testing was first developed by eugenicists looking to organize people into racist taxonomies based on perceived ability.

But despite these serious problems — and the persistent, bipartisan unpopularity of the high-stakes testing regime inaugurated by NCLB — our current, Obama-era iteration of the ESEA (the Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA) still requires states to impose inappropriate test-based accountability on students and school communities.

When we sort children into “proficient” and “failing” categories based on test scores, we’re not solving the opportunity gaps that show up in public education; we’re creating new ones. No one is helped, and many people are hurt, when we give students, teachers, and schools an impossible assignment and then sanction them for failing to complete it. Looking forward to the ESEA’s now overdue reauthorization, it’s high time we built accountability systems that nurture the humanity and potential of all kids — rather than placing artificial roadblocks in their way.

Disability Is a Cultural Experience

Due to a genetic mutation carried over from Kent County, England, the population of Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts, once knew an exceptionally high rate of inherited deafness. At its peak in the nineteenth century, Vineyard deafness affected as many as one in 155 people on the island. Because both deaf and hearing residents spoke a highly developed form of sign language, deafness posed no obstacle to full participation in economic, social, academic, and civic life.

In fact, according to education scholars Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne, when surviving community members were later interviewed, “they could not always remember who among them had been deaf, for everyone spoke sign language, sometimes even hearing people with other hearing people.” In other words, the culture of eighteenth and nineteenth century Martha’s Vineyard was set up in a way that rendered deafness not a disability. Just consider that for a moment.

McDermott and Varenne use the example of the Vineyard deaf to illustrate how disabilities are not, contrary to normative discourse, the unfortunate possessions of individual people. Rather, they’re cultural experiences, produced by structures that enable some of us while disabling others. There’s nothing per se disabling about needing a wheelchair, for example. Disability shows up in the interaction between that wheelchair and the sidewalks, curbs, buses, and buildings designed exclusively for people who walk.

Likewise, the inability to pass a state test did not narrow Dante’s opportunities for any reason intrinsic to Dante. Most of the things we need to do in life are nothing like standardized tests, which require students to independently read and respond to decontextualized academic material for hours at a time. The road signs we use to travel from home to work, for example, and the tasks that make up our jobs, are generally not designed to trick us. Standardized test questions often are.

Similarly, at work and throughout our lives, we’re obliged to collaborate. You’d be hard-pressed to find a meaningful contribution to society that did not involve any teamwork. But collaboration is strictly forbidden in standardized testing rooms. Even if you qualify for special accommodations, the tests only measure what you can do by yourself — in a highly stressful, frankly dehumanizing vacuum. It’s quite a leap to say, as Massachusetts, Florida, Illinois, Louisiana, New York, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming do, that students who don’t perform well under these conditions are categorically unfit for college or any career requiring a high school diploma.

It’s just as illogical to punish teachers or schools for poor standardized test scores. According to the American Statistical Association, school-level inputs only account for a very small percentage of student score variability — possibly as little as 1 percent. The most reliable predictors of kids’ standardized test scores are factors like socioeconomic status, over which schools have no control.

Poverty is associated with a variety of conditions (e.g., malnutrition, sleep deprivation, crowded or unstable housing, chronically overheated environments) that are known to lower test scores. These scores, in other words, capture a fundamentally economic problem caused by exploitative employers and a weak social safety net, and repackage that problem as the deficiency of individual students, educators, and schools.

In the heyday of neoliberal education reform, this made possible great reputation-laundering for lawmakers interested in projecting a concern for yawning inequality while doing nothing to redistribute wealth. Along the way, kids like Dante have been forced to feel an utterly pointless kind of misery.

A Brighter Future?

Earlier this year, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona urged states to use standardized tests as a “flashlight,” to reveal what is and isn’t working, not a “hammer.” These and other comments from the nation’s top education official reflect just how much the tides have turned against the harsh penalties that NCLB forced states to attach to student test scores.

This turning of the tides is also reflected in state education laws. Take the exit exams that are used to withhold diplomas from students like Dante. As recently as 2014, nearly half of all US states made high school graduation contingent upon standardized test scores, despite evidence that exit exams don’t improve students’ learning or future employment and that they make vulnerable kids more likely to drop out and become incarcerated.

Today, only eight states still use them (although more states have standardized test–based grade retention policies for younger students). Some states have even gone so far as to offer a legislative mea culpa, retroactively awarding diplomas to people who were denied them on the basis of test scores. A bill currently pending before the Massachusetts Joint Committee on Education would remove the MCAS as a graduation requirement. In Washington, Representative Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) has gained attention as a vocal opponent of high-stakes testing and the high-stakes testing industry.

The Beyond Test Scores Project and the National Education Policy Center recently published a report titled “Educational Accountability 3.0: Beyond ESSA,” summarizing two dozen leading educational assessment scholars’ shared vision for what the next ESEA reauthorization should prioritize. They make six broad recommendations, including developing systems of reciprocal accountability, so that school communities like Dante’s can hold lawmakers accountable for providing them with needed resources.

Assessment systems, they argue, should reflect the wide range of important things that public schools do, rather than focusing exclusively on test scores. They stress that many of the problems we’ve seen in the neoliberal education reform era, such as test score–driven school closures, “can be remedied or reduced by lowering the stakes that have been central to NCLB-style accountability.”

Cardona’s “flashlight, not hammer” advice is a welcome contrast to the rhetoric of people like Arne Duncan and Michelle Rhee. And as we can see from the example of exit exams, states do have some room to shift away from hammer mode while remaining ESSA compliant. Still, as long as the nation’s most important education law requires kids to take statewide tests throughout their public school careers, we’re likely to keep seeing complex, multifaceted people and institutions reduced to a profoundly flawed metric. And that means that a percentage of students will, like Dante, be arbitrarily labeled inadequate.

Young people should be focused on enjoying life, refining their interests and talents, and solving the world’s problems, not guessing which bubbles to darken to escape the worst abuses of a punitive education state. If we actually want to help schools better meet the needs of poor, minority, and disabled kids — a stated purpose of both NCLB and ESSA — we must allow them to assess learning in ways that afford all students the chance to show what they can do.