Below I’ll discuss 4 articles, 2 peer-reviewed and 2 professional, that each uniquely oppose the current ways in which standardized tests influence public education.
In “Retaking the Test” David Backer and Tyson Lewis call for a more nuanced view of testing using the framework of the “learning-testing regime” and Ronell’s (2005) idea of the “test drive.” According to this article, the problem is not testing itself but rather the type of testing that has become “common sense” in modern schooling. The culture of standardized testing creates an endless “learning-testing regime” in which the purpose of tests is “to improve outputs, maximize human capital development” (Backer & Lewis, 2015). This type of testing is harmful to students’ growth as human beings and discourages their natural “test drive,” which is one’s natural drive to push themself and make new discoveries about the self and the world (Backer & Lewis, 2015). They argue that while tests that encourage students’ “test drive” are essential to quality education, the problem with standardized testing is that the merit and quality of the test itself goes unquestioned. Similarly, in “Meritocracy 2.0” Wayne Au argues that standardized tests are falsely viewed as objective. This author views the problem through a lens of social justice and argues that this assumed objectivity “masks” the structural inequalities that students of color actually face (Au, 2015). According to Au, neoliberal reforms employ “colorblind racism” by arguing that tests rooted in systematic inequality are in fact equalizers of students across race. Thus, both articles call into question the validity of the “common sense” of modern standardized testing.
Effects on Students:
Both articles emphasize that the supposed objectivity of the test places unjust blame on individuals by giving them personally a “failing” score. In “Retaking the Test,” after the authors note the disproportionately low scores of students of color on state tests, they argue that “Without the test, there is no such thing as the Common Core, no such thing as ‘meeting’ or ‘exceeding’ some ‘standard.’ The test produces a certain set of expectations, reducing the complexity of education to a series of quantities that can be compared, aggregated, disaggregated, and read as symptoms or as successes” (Backer & Lewis, 2015). Thus, the test uses an unquestioned yet inorganic standard to label the students as failures. Likewise, in “Meritocracy 2.0,” Au discusses how neoliberal reformers use the same logic to use Black and Brown students’ “failing” test scores to justify increased discipline and outside control of their schools. Students are also exposed to less culturally relevant and engaging class activities to make more time for test preparation. Research has also shown that tests such as exit exams can cause higher rates of incarceration and high school incompletion, especially for students of color (Au, 2015). Therefore, all authors agree that the arbitrary and biased standards created by standardized tests negatively impact students by working to create failure.
Backer, Lewis and Au all call for a stop to current standardized testing practices. Backer and Lewis advocate for “tests that defy measurement and labeling” and claim that “the point of such tests is not to rank and classify students, but rather to declassify students, enabling them to experiment with their lives in ways that remain unrecognizable to the performance quotas of high-stakes testing” (Backer & Lewis, 2015). Therefore they suggest that instead of abandoning testing altogether, tests should be geared towards encouraging students’ “test drive” and not achieving a quantitative score. From a social justice perspective, Au suggests that parents, students and teachers join the “opt out” movement to abandon current testing practices. Similar to Backer and Lewis, he also says that different kinds of tests, such as a multi-subject portfolio, may help to correct the inaccurate scores of individuals. However he notes that this approach does not remedy the underlying structures of inequality.
These articles discuss the ways in which standardized testing negatively impacts both schools and students. In “Test Scores Don’t Tell the Whole Story,” Jack Schneider argues that the traditional focus on test scores as the main measure of school quality creates a narrow and often inaccurate view of what a “good” school is. Since test scores are closely correlated with individual students’ income levels, this results in a cycle of segregation in which more affluent families move their high-scoring children to districts known for having “good” schools, which in turn really just means schools that are known for having a high average of test scores. According to this article, it also creates a culture in which teachers feel pressured to prioritize test preparation. In “What to do about a Generation of ‘Lost Einsteins’” Anthony Brandt and David Eagleman lament that this prioritization of test preparation causes a lack of creative opportunities for students. The authors note that from a holistic perspective, students who have grown up around this culture of standardized testing are put at a disadvantage when it comes to problem solving and skills that are not specific to this type of testing.
Effects on Students:
According to Schneider, the disproportionate focus on test scores in school ratings causes the “undermining” of the rest of the curriculum, giving students an education that only focuses on math and English. It also limits students’ valuable exposure to people who are different from them from increased socioeconomic segregation. “What to do about a Generation of ‘Lost Einsteins’” also laments the negative effects of an education that focuses narrowly on just testable subjects. This article discusses how the current emphasis on test preparation leaves students without opportunities to practice invaluable risk management and resilience skills. The authors note that by focusing on standardized tests with only one correct answer, students learn that there is no value in an incorrect answer. This is a damaging message for students’ creative drive, which requires many attempts and failure before finding a solution. Thus, both articles agree that standardized testing creates a culture with a narrow-minded focus on a few testable subjects, while devaluing skills and experiences that are critical for developing students’ whole selves.
Schneider has already implemented a solution to this problem by creating a more holistic system of school evaluation that takes into account “teachers and the teaching environment; school culture; resources; academic learning; and citizenship and well-being” instead of simply test scores (Schneider, 2017). These non-traditional categories of school quality are less discriminatory to low-income communities, give teachers more autonomy in their classrooms, give teachers valuable insights into how to improve their teaching to fit students’ needs and improve public perceptions of schools (Schneider, 2017). In Brandt and Eagleman’s article they offer solutions to a bland and uninspiring lessons such as creating alterative histories in history class, imagining future inventions in science class, and creating one’s own music and art instead of just imitating well-known existing pieces (Brandt & Eagleman, 2018). Their point that “Knowledge shouldn’t just be a landing point—it should be a springboard” perfectly captures the main idea of both articles (Brandt & Eagleman, 2018). The solution to the rigid standardized testing culture in both school ratings and classroom experiences is to broaden what is considered important from just rote memorization of pieces of “knowledge” to how that knowledge can be built upon by the students themselves.