Mass testing

If “concurrent” schooling is the worst idea to be produced during the pandemic (and it is), a close second are all the proposals (starting with the Biden administration) to resume standardized testing this spring.

In the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog Wayne Au, a professor in the School of Educational Studies at the University of Washington at Bothell and an editor for the social justice magazine Rethinking Schools, explains why.

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.

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.

After more than a year of chaos in schools, how can administrators and politicians make a meaning full comparison between data collected in pre-pandemic 2019 and any results captured this spring? The answer is, of course, you can’t. But the numbers will still make headlines, and likely come with no meaningful context. 

However, as Professor Au explains, the larger and longer-term problem is that the tests themselves are crappy measures of student achievement, and even racist.

Our high-stakes test scores today basically mirror the race and class inequalities produced by the racist and classist I.Q. tests created a century ago.

For decades, research has shown that test scores do not accurately reflect teaching and learning. Rather, they overwhelmingly reflect levels of poverty and other non-school factors such as housing insecurity, food insecurity and access to health care.

These tests do not work as promised. In the roughly two decades since high-stakes, standardized testing was federally mandated by the 2002 No Child Left Behind Act, there has been virtually no decrease in test-score inequality between major racial and economic student groups, and in some cases, the gaps in scores may have increased.

Finally, there’s this often-overlooked major consequence that has come from more than two decades of nationally mandated standardized testing programs.

High-stakes testing narrows the curriculum to tested subjects, restricts the amount of space for multicultural curricula and culturally relevant teaching, and has resulted in cuts to important time spent at recess and lunch.

During the pandemic, replicating the schooling process in an online/hybrid environment has been a difficult process for both teachers and students. Something good could emerge from the chaos if we put a stop to the stupidity of high-stakes testing and instead devoted some serious resources to creating meaningful ways of assessing student learning.


The image of a nightmarish testing situation comes from a six-year-old article in The Atlantic titled “What Happens When Students Boycott a Standardized Test?”. Maybe we need a little of that thinking this year.