Danny* was an active 10 year old — in class we always gave her free reign to pace the back of the classroom, play with silly putty at her desk, and take a break when she needed to. The happiest I ever saw her was when we took students to a local farm; she was at home milking cows and learning about science outside. Even though she was a city kid, she always found ways to climb trees and find and take care of wounded animals. She was a really smart kid, quick to understand hard concepts and able to explain them to classmates beautifully.
Danny hated nothing more than standardized test day. Sometimes she would pick up her pencil and answer some questions. But as the hours went on, she would curl up at her desk, with her legs pulled up by her shoulders, her eyes glazing over. Sometimes she would rock back and forth. Sometimes a few tears would stream down her face: “Miss, I can’t do this.”
Three hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon for standardized tests. It’s horrible for any kid. They all hated it. All the teachers also hated it: we wanted to be teaching — finding ways to advance students’ reading and math skills, helping them think critically and do projects and presentations. Everyone hated standardized tests. But for kids like Danny, it was torture.
And that’s without online learning and a global pandemic.
Now, Joe Biden is forcing schools to administer standardized tests in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. States will not be allowed to choose to cancel standardized testing this year, as they did last year under the Trump administration. Despite all of Biden’s rhetoric about being a president that supports educators, Acting Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum sent a letter out to state education chiefs saying the following:
To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need. We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs. In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing.
I call bullshit.
Standardized tests don’t measure learning. They correspond to the cultural knowledge more commonly known by white wealthy kids. I’ve seen questions on skiing and, worse yet, about “equestrian sports” given to predominantly Black and Latinx kids who live in big cities. Additionally, only kids with more financial resources can access test prep programs. In other words, testing as a way to measure learning is one of the pillars of racism in schools.
Recently deceased Karen Lewis, former president of the Chicago Teachers Union, explained, “These tests labeled our students, families and educators failures because standardized tests reveal more about a student’s zip code than a student’s academic growth.”
And standardized tests only measure a very particular kind of knowledge: the ability to look at hypothetical questions on a sheet of paper and select which is best from A to D. It tests patience and stamina for sitting in silence and answering questions with no purpose outside of the test. Educator Bill Ayers writes: “Standardized tests can’t measure initiative, creativity, imagination, conceptual thinking, curiosity, effort, irony, judgment, commitment, nuance, good will, ethical reflection, or a host of other valuable dispositions and attributes. What they can measure and count are isolated skills, specific facts and function, content knowledge, the least interesting and least significant aspects of learning.”
In other words, standardized tests don’t actually measure learning. So no, this is not the way to measure the impact of COVID-19 on learning.
And further, since the start of standardized testing, it has never been a way to “identify what resources and supports students need.” Rather, it has been used to punish struggling schools and threaten them with school closure. It has been used to expand the charter system, using the excuse of ineffective public schools. It has been used to punish and shame teachers with “value added measures” and by tying teacher pay to standardized tests. In some cities, “teacher effectiveness” ranking have even been published in an attempt to publicly humiliate teachers. This was begun with No Child Left Behind and continued and strengthened under the Obama administration with the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and Race to the Top. In fact, these currently mandated standardized tests are under the ESSA, an Obama-era law.
In other words, standardized tests have been used as a form of punishment and privatization but not to actually direct resources to schools who need them. In one of the most jarring examples, in 2010 the infamous school reformer Michelle Rhee fired almost 250 teachers in Washington DC, 6% of the workforce, due to low standardized test scores and put another 17% of teachers on notice: they could be fired if their students’ standardized test scores didn’t go up.
These policies were not only Obama’s, but also Biden’s. And because teachers’ unions are such close allies to the Democratic Party, these vast neoliberal measures and attacks were able to pass more easily under their administration. And so, this latest attack by Biden should be seen as part of a broader Biden project to re-open schools right away as well as blaming teachers and teachers unions for the problems in education. Meanwhile, education budgets are cut at the local and state level. This points in the direction of a Biden administration that plans to follow the same path as Obama.
The Way Forward
There is no doubt that the pandemic year will have a huge impact on education. There is no doubt that low income students and students of color will be disproportionately affected: from the psychological trauma of the past year, losing loved ones, struggling in school — it’s been a tough year. The kids who already struggled in the classroom certainly are struggling even more at home with a lot of learning now being semi-self directed. Teachers know this.
Standardized tests won’t tell us what educators need. Educators, families and students are the people who can tell us what resources are needed to address the pandemic year. They are the ones who should decide.
But, we don’t need to start from 0. We know that teachers need much smaller class sizes and a lot of personalized learning opportunities for students. Once schools are in person again, we’re going to need counselors for the trauma that kids have endured. We’re going to need to be flexible, not punitive, with kids who have fallen behind. Instead, states are already cutting education budgets, and now the federal government wants kids to take alienating standardized tests.
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten said, “It misses a huge opportunity to really help our students by allowing the waiver of assessments and the substitution, instead, of locally developed, authentic assessments that could be used by educators and parents as a baseline for work this summer and next year.”
Weingarten is partially right about this, although she falls short of a real solution. Standardized tests should be abolished. They don’t assess learning, and they don’t help teachers or students.
However, the leader of a national union should do more than issue a statement. Teachers and schools are under attack; between cuts to education budgets, unsafe re-openings and now this, our unions should be putting up a fight. The Biden administration is going down the same path as Obama with education policies that demonize and punish teachers. This clearly shows the folly in supporting and campaigning for Biden, and highlights that educators — and more broadly, workers — can only rely on our own strength, our own mobilization, and the unity of all working class and oppressed people to fight incoming attacks and austerity.
And there is a new foundation for this. After the wave of teachers strikes, a global pandemic that showed that workers are essential and a mass movement for Black Lives Matter, teachers cannot react the same way we did under Obama. Education is on the chopping block in the midst of the global recession, and we will have to fight for the education our kids deserve and the working conditions teachers deserve.
*Names and details changed for anonymity.