It didn’t work, which came as no surprise to teachers and other critics. They had long pointed to extensive research showing standardized test scores are most strongly correlated to a student’s life circumstances. Real reform, they said, means addressing students’ social and emotional needs and the conditions in which they live, and making improvements in school buildings.
Higher education was not immune to the testing frenzy, either, at least not in admissions. Scores on the SAT or ACT became an important factor in deciding who was accepted. College rankings — led by the annual lists of U.S. News & World Report, which were heavily weighted on test scores — became powerful as students relied on them and schools tried to improve their rankings with targeted reforms. Scholarship programs were linked to test scores, and some companies checked the scores of potential hires. Florida spent millions of dollars to give bonuses to teachers with high SAT scores — even decades after the tests were taken.
Now, we are seeing the collapse of the two-decade-old bipartisan consensus among major policymakers that testing was the key lever for holding students, schools and teachers “accountable.” And it is no coincidence that it is happening against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic that forced educational institutions to revamp how they operate.
States are learning they can live without them, having been given permission by the Department of Education to not give them this past spring. Georgia has already announced its intention to get a waiver for 2020-21, too.
A tsunami of colleges and universities have dropped the requirement for an ACT or SAT score for at least a year. The huge organizations that own the tests, ACT Inc. and the College Board, are clearly struggling in the new environment.
Even high-stakes law exams are starting to be waived. Washington state’s Supreme Court just decided to allow graduates from American Bar Association-accredited law schools who were registered to take the bar exam in July or September to be licensed without passing the test. The winning argument was that it would be too difficult for many students to study for and take the exam during the pandemic. The justices must have thought the education and grades the students received in law school were good enough.
Politically, too, the stars seem aligned for a serious de-escalation of testing. President Trump has never been a loud advocate for standardized testing and has repeatedly said his education priority is expanding alternatives to public school districts. His education secretary, Betsy DeVos, has not been a testing proponent either, with her eye instead on expanding school “choice.”
Former vice president Joe Biden, who is the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee and ahead of Trump in many polls, has tried to distance himself from the pro-testing policies of the Obama administration. He was not a cheerleader of testing during Obama’s two terms and has said recently he is opposed to high-stakes testing. That’s not a promise that he will work to reduce it, but it is a promising suggestion.
None of this means standardized testing will stop, or even that every state and district will cut back, or that all colleges and universities will stop requiring an SAT or ACT score to apply.
But here are some developments in the testing world that show that more policymakers understand tests can’t fix problems in schools — and that schools alone can’t fix the nation’s problems.
This past spring, K-12 school districts across the country did something that for nearly two decades had been deemed unthinkable.
With permission from the Education Department, they canceled annual high-stakes standardized testing after the covid-19 crisis upended the last several months of the school year. Millions of students were at home, learning remotely either on paper or on screens. And state leaders realized it wasn’t plausible or fair to give students the tests.
Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) made the point that “the world will not come to an end” if the federally mandated tests weren’t given — though for years, federal and state policymakers had acted as if it would.
States require students to take standardized tests for different purposes. Some tests are mandated by K-12 law, and while that didn’t start with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it ushered in the high-stakes testing era in which punishments were meted out to schools and teachers based on how well students performed on the exams. It didn’t matter that testing experts repeatedly warned that using scores for these purposes was not valid or reliable.
States give standardized tests, too, for reasons including third-grade retention, high school graduation, and end-of-course exams. A two-year study released in 2015 revealed that kids were being forced to take too many mandated standardized tests — and that there was no evidence that adding testing time was improving student achievement. The average student in America’s big-city public schools was then taking some 112 mandatory standardized tests between prekindergarten and the end of 12th grade — an average of about eight a year, the study said. Those were on top of teacher-written tests.
The purported goal of NCLB — written with the input of not a single public school teacher — was to ensure that marginalized communities were not ignored by looking at test scores by student subgroups and targeting help where it was needed. Schools concentrated on math and English so students could pass the exams while giving short shrift to, or eliminating, classes in history, science, art, music, physical education and other subjects.
Public education advocates hoped Obama would stop the country’s obsession with standardized tests and address inequity baked into the funding system. His administration instead heightened the importance of the test scores by dangling federal funds in front of states that agreed to evaluate teachers through the exam results. States developed cockamamie schemes to do this, including grading teachers on students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach.
A grass-roots effort to get the administration to change course took hold, and some states tried to find ways to cut back on local testing. But then-Education Secretary Arne Duncan micromanaged education policy so much that the department was derided as a “national school board,” and Congress, in late 2015 — eight years after it was supposed to — passed a successor law that sent policymaking largely back to the states.
By early 2016, Obama and his second education secretary, John B. King Jr., said kids were, after all, over-tested. Still, the new federal law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), mandated the same testing regime, and states were still spending millions of dollars each year on testing programs.
Ostensibly, the tests would provide data to schools about what students had learned and how effective teachers were. But research study after study showed that the highest correlation was between the scores and whether a child lived in poverty.
This all made DeWine’s statement about the world not coming to an end if tests were suspended for a year an unusual admission. On June 18, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) made it clear he doesn’t think missing two years of standardized testing is a big problem, either.
This past spring, DeVos gave all states a one-year waiver to suspend the federally mandated testing. Kemp announced that his state would be the first to seek a second testing waiver from the Education Department, this time for the soon-to-start 2020-21 school year. Other states are likely to follow suit amid so much uncertainty about the trajectory of the pandemic.
Kemp also said that the “current high-stakes testing regime is excessive,” and promised to keep pushing an initiative in the state legislature to eliminate four of eight end-of-course exams required for high school students, and another standardized test given in middle school.
Georgia isn’t the only state that is now moving to cut back on standardized testing. In late May, the Ohio House of Representatives passed legislation to reduce standardized testing.
What could make this effort to cut testing different from earlier ones are the outside circumstances. Because of the pandemic, states and school districts are facing potentially unprecedented budget deficits — and school spending in some states has still not recovered from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.
Because testing programs are extremely expensive, states could decide the costs aren’t worth the dubious results. Many teachers say they don’t need standardized tests to help them assess where students are in their learning.
Add to that the effects of the national uprising for racial justice, sparked by the death in police custody of George Floyd, an unarmed black man in Minneapolis.
Protesters in the streets are looking for justice not only in policing and the courts. They also want social, economic and educational justice. Though educators have long known that students need more than tests to thrive and that schools must address more than academics, there is a new awareness among the people who make policy.
Spending mountains of money for inequitable testing accountability systems isn’t compatible with calls for more holistic ways of educating and helping students grow and thrive.
On the higher education front, the pandemic also interrupted the SAT/ACT college admissions testing juggernaut.
With exam days canceled and aspiring college students getting frantic about not having a score to add to their applications, many colleges and universities said they would drop their requirements for an SAT or ACT test score for admission in fall 2021.
To be sure, a “test-optional” movement had been building for years. A nonprofit group called the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest), which operated on a shoestring budget with a mission to end the misuse of standardized tests, worked with testing critics and compiled a list of colleges and universities that had dropped the use of ACT or SAT scores for admissions.
Hundreds of schools had already done so, as research showed the test scores were linked to socio-economic factors and not predictive of college success, despite counter statements by the College Board and ACT Inc.
Then the pandemic hit. Schools shut down and college students went home to finish their semesters virtually. The two testing giants canceled repeated administrations of their exams, losing millions of dollars and making it difficult for many students to get a score required by most institutions of higher education.
The inevitable happened: Colleges and universities announced suspensions of testing requirements for 2020-21. Some said they would not require tests for a few years as an experiment to see how the admissions process would do without them.
Then, in May, in what was called a seminal event in college admissions, the University of California system announced it would phase out SAT/ACT testing requirements over several years, with some members of the Board of Regents saying the tests were not helpful in creating diverse student bodies and one member labeling them “racist.” The prestigious system has long been a force in public higher education, and its decision is expected to influence other schools.
By mid-June, every Ivy League school had agreed to drop SAT/ACT requirements for students entering in the fall of 2020. FairTest’s list includes more than 1,250 schools that in some way allow students leeway in including test scores on their applications, albeit some of them just for 2020-21. (The list includes for-profit schools.)
The College Board and ACT have been struggling during the pandemic. Both were forced to cancel multiple administrations of the SAT and ACT, losing millions of dollars and leaving many students fearful they wouldn’t have a score for applications. Both promised they would offer at-home exams this fall if necessary, but the College Board backed off after its experiment with at-home Advanced Placement tests.
Though most students had no problem taking the AP tests, thousands did, and the College Board decided not to try an at-home SAT. The ACT said it will go ahead, but the Iowa-based organization has other problems.
In May, ACT chief executive Marten Roorda, who aggressively lobbied against the UC decision, lost his job. At the same time, ACT announced it was taking “a series of cost-cutting measures,” including no raises and cuts in fringe benefits.
Meanwhile students trying in May to sign up for future ACT and SAT exams, should they be given, ran into online trouble.
The fundamental notion that standardized testing is an effective way of gauging student achievement is being challenged more strongly than ever.
Some K-12 schools will continue to use these exams extensively, seeing them as a valuable tool, including in Florida, where former governor Jeb Bush (R) pioneered high-stakes accountability testing and still has influence in education policy. And many colleges and universities will require admissions test scores, seeing them as a useful data point in making decisions on whom to admit.
But the combination of the pandemic, the uprising and disillusionment with the testing industry — which has been building among teachers, parents and students for years — points to a new chapter for public education, or, at least, the beginning of the end of our obsession with high-stakes standardized tests.
What would a reasonable testing system look like? Here is a proposal from FairTest, with elements embraced by many educators:
- Limit state standardized test requirements to no more than the minimum required by ESSA (once each in reading and math in grades 3-8, plus once in high school, as well as one science test each in elementary, middle and high school) — a total of 17 during a student’s public school career. This means eliminating standardized exams in other subjects and grade levels that states (or districts) might have piled on top of federal mandates.
- Seek federal waiver of testing requirements, at least for the 2020-2021 school year but preferably for a longer period. Suspend test administrations and all associated “accountability” measures.
- Terminate high-stakes consequences that rely on test scores for students (grade promotion tests, exit exams, course/program placement), teachers (bonuses, job ratings), and schools/districts (simplistic grading systems).
- Protect young children by banning mass standardized testing before grade 3.
- Enforce testing transparency and enhance public oversight. Make questions and answers from previously administered exams available for review by students, parents, teachers, journalists and other stakeholders. Require test-makers to disclose all studies of their exams’ technical qualities, including validity, reliability, and likely impacts on curriculum and instruction.
- Develop and implement performance-based assessment systems that enhance academic quality and equity by focusing on improvements in student work done over time.
(Correction: Earlier version said students were having trouble registering online for AP and SAT tests. It is ACT, not AP.)