The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

This educator turned lawmaker wants to end misuse of standardized testing

5 min

The national news is full of depressing stories about repeated acts of violence in schools, expanding restrictions in Republican-led states on what teachers can say about race and gender, and staffing shortages so severe that some districts are going to four-day school weeks.

Something getting less attention but shouldn’t be is the annual springtime ritual of standardized K-12 testing. It involves millions of students who are forced to take exams to obtain scores that educators say don’t tell them anything they don’t already know. In state after state, students are undergoing hours of test preparation and then take exams that eat up time teachers say would be better spent on authentic instruction.

Annual standardized testing has been required by the federal government in most grades for decades, with the scores used for various reasons, including in many states the evaluation of teachers. Assessment experts have long said the formulas used for the evaluations aren’t valid for that purpose, but that doesn’t stop their use.

These experts have also cited other problems with the way standardized tests are used in the United States, including that teachers are purportedly intended to help teachers target specific interventions to students. The reality is that teachers aren’t allowed to see which questions students got wrong on these exams. Of course, well-designed exams can be highly useful to educators, but many of the standardized tests in use today are not particularly well crafted. One thing standardized tests have been consistent at showing over the years is the correlation between scores and whether a child lives in poverty.

Did we need NAEP to tell us students aren’t doing well?

During the coronavirus pandemic, with the education world effectively in chaos, federal officials allowed states to suspend annual testing. In 2022, testing resumed and the scores, hardly surprisingly, dropped in most places.

In January, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona acknowledged that the testing regime needs to change, saying in a speech: “We need to recognize once and for all that standardized tests work best when they serve as a flashlight on what works and what needs our attention — not as hammers to drive the outcomes we want in education from the top down, often pointing fingers to those with greater needs and less resources.”

Still, the Biden administration hasn’t moved to change the testing regime yet, and when the state of Maine recently changed the way it does annual testing, the U.S. Education Department threatened to withhold some federal funding. Meanwhile, some other states are attempting to move away from high-stakes standardized examinations and eliminating some testing mandates or replacing them with performance assessments, which requires students to show what they know through activities, projects or other open-ended tasks.

On the federal level, one member of Congress says he has had enough with standardized testing. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), the former principal of a middle school in the Bronx, is introducing legislation on Thursday that seeks to change the federal law that requires the testing to allow schools to do something more useful.

The bill is called the More Teaching Less Testing Act, which is exactly what it seeks to do — allow states more flexibility in designing and administering summative tests.

It would eliminate the requirement in the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act — which was a rewrite of the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act — that annual statewide standardized tests in reading and math in grades 3 to 8, and once in high schools, as well as assessments once in each grade span in science for all students and annual English-language proficiency assessments in grades K-12 for all English learners. It would offer options for states to choose from — including grade-span testing, which limits the amount of times tests are given in each level of schooling — and representative sampling — and would reduce the amount of testing as well as cost.

Bowman, who in 2009 founded the Cornerstone Academy for Social Action, a Bronx public middle school that focused on a holistic curriculum, served as principal for a decade before winning an upset victory in the 2020 primary for the House seat he later won and has held since then.

Bowman said that he knows from experience that standardized tests don’t provide teachers with any information about their students they don’t already know and that the massive amount of test preparation robs students of quality learning time.

“Annual testing doesn’t happen in our most celebrated private schools,” he said, “and I think we need to ask ourselves why that is. Kids in those elite private schools are exposed to a robust comprehensive curriculum. There is no annual testing there. Why are we doing it to our poorest, most vulnerable children? No one has given me a good answer to that question.”

Bowman’s legislation has been endorsed by the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, and also by the NAACP, the country’s oldest and largest civil rights organization.

The slim new Republican majority in the House, however slim, means that Bowman must persuade the leadership of the House Education Committee to take up his legislation, hold hearings and put it up for a vote. Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) chairs the committee. I asked the committee office whether she would consider legislation to scale back the federal standardized testing mandate. If I hear back, I’ll add the response.

Though Cardona appears to be onboard with at least the idea of changing the standardized testing mandate, it is not clear that all Democrats would be. Some of them have been enthusiastic defenders of annual standardized testing. Bowman said he thinks legislators in both parties are ready to make the changes after so many years of controversy over standardized testing. We’ll see.

What you need to know about standardized testing