Standardized Testing during a Pandemic?

U.S. Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently announced that schools would be not be granted waivers from annual high-stakes testing although states and school districts rail against that decision. DeVos has said it’s part of the agreement of the Every Student Succeeds Act and schools need to comply. Some members of Congress are saying that tests will show how the pandemic has impacted education especially for those students of color, those with special needs, or those from low-income households.

Honestly, I thought this was a no-brainer; it just doesn’t make sense. This year is already so challenging for schools, for teachers, and for students. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last and how long it will be before all schools can resume face-to-face learning. Teachers are struggling to provide quality virtual learning experiences while also addressing the social-emotional and mental health issues of students.

I am not a fan of high-stakes standardized testing. (Read about my viewpoints here and here.) I believe the money that is spent on those tests should be distributed to schools to update equipment and learning resources or to purchase additional staff who will directly impact students. I believe the time spent in preparing for and in administering these assessments is instructional time lost for students who may need it the most. I believe the comparing of schools based on test scores is not just unfair; it is disheartening when staff are working so hard to address their students’ needs to be compared to other schools with fewer societal challenges.

I remember a parent who was registering her child at our military-impacted school. She asked me if her son would have to repeat fourth grade. When I asked her for more information, she shared that he hadn’t passed the statewide test the previous year and would have had to repeat the grade if he were still in that state. “This would be his third time in fourth grade,” she shared. I assured her that we do not hold students back if they don’t pass the statewide assessment, and you could see the relief in her whole body. “He has been dreading me coming to register,” she said. “He’ll be so relieved.” Her story elicited a range of emotions in me ranging from sadness to anger. Students are much more than just a test score.

I saw examples of students who struggled with academics and felt so stressed during these statewide assessments. All we could do was encourage them to do their best and to build up their confidence and mindset. Some of these students gave up and others cried because they were so stressed. More than a few times, I felt tears in my eyes because they were so miserable. The thing is that many of these students who struggled with academics and statewide testing had other strengths. Some were natural leaders because of their empathy and caring for their peers. Some were creative and artistic, and others were athletically gifted. A test score didn’t define who they were.

This year should be a time for teachers to examine their practices and to try new ways of engaging and empowering their students to be the best they can be. It starts from recognizing student strengths and finding ways to provide the supports they need so that learning is meaningful. It is not a time for teachers and students to be spending valuable time preparing students for standardized assessments. And it is not a time for states or districts to be spending valuable funds purchasing these assessments.