Critics of federally mandated K-12 standardized tests were upset when the Biden administration recently said it would require states to administer them this year. They raised pre-pandemic questions about reliability and validity of test scores — as well as concerns about how scores would be affected by the instability of the school year during the coronavirus pandemic.

In this post, a longtime testing critic looks at why giving standardized tests after a year in which children were educated during a pandemic is nothing but an exercise in futility. The author is Wayne Au, a professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington at Bothell. He is also an editor for the social justice magazine Rethinking Schools.

By Wayne Au

The Biden administration’s decision to require schools across the country to administer high-stakes standardized tests this spring caught many parents, students and teachers by surprise. It contradicts President Biden’s campaign promises to cut back on testing — and seems to ignore the deep inequities and wild inconsistencies associated with remote schooling over the last year.

What the administration and testing advocates seem to miss is that any data generated by high-stakes standardized testing this spring will be invalid and, therefore, useless. Even in non-pandemic years, high-stakes standardized tests don’t accurately and objectively measure teaching and learning.

I am a longtime critic of high-stakes standardized testing for reasons including:

These are all concerns I have about high-stakes, standardized testing in a normal year, let alone during a year of pandemic-based remote education.

For testing advocates, one of the central points of these tests is to make “objective” comparisons. They want to use the test data to compare students, teachers and schools to one another. They also want to use the data to compare states and countries, as well as this year’s students to last year’s students, and so on.

Within the logic of testing, the validity of these comparisons, and arguments about objectivity, rely on standardization. The idea is that you can make valid measurements and comparisons using test scores if different groups of students are given the same test, for the same amount of time, on the same content, under as similar conditions as possible.

That way, according to advocates, we can look at the score of Student A and objectively compare it to Student B, because not only was the content of their testing and learning standardized, but their testing experience was standardized as well. Put differently, the point of standardization is to come as close to an apples-to-apples comparison as possible, as opposed to an apples-to-oranges one.

Standardized comparison is even at the heart of policies using test scores to grade schools and evaluate teachers; both require a stable universe of comparable student standardized test scores to determine whether a school is graded “A” versus an “F,” or that a teacher is considered effective or not based on student pass rates.

Schooling during the pandemic has been anything but standardized or objective. While the trauma of the pandemic has been hard on most everyone, economic and health disparities associated with covid-19 have hit poor people and communities of color the hardest.

This means that working-class students and students of color are experiencing pandemic hardships disproportionately: They are more likely to have gotten sick from covid-19, more likely to have lost a relative to covid-19, more likely to have experienced hunger or homelessness due to covid-19, and more likely to be juggling child care and other family responsibilities due to covid-19.

Similarly, we also know that access to technology and reliable Internet service, among other crucial pieces of educational infrastructure during the pandemic, have been inequitable for students of color and poor students.

It is true that the Biden administration has said that the test score data will not be used to discipline or punish low-performing schools, states or districts. However, that is a meaningless gesture.

Individual students taking standardized tests in completely non-standardized environments would produce incomparable and totally subjective scores.

Even if all students and teachers are forced by federal or state decree to return to some amount of face-to-face instruction this spring, there is still no standardized test that will render any valid or objective data for comparison, because the inequitable conditions of our students’ lives and learning have been anything but standard.

This school year has been a year like no other. Given the vast disparities of resources, participation and conditions of education during the pandemic, the results of any high-stakes standardized testing would be invalid — and the act of administering them would be an exercise in futility.