An earlier version of this article was published by The Progressive
by Jesse Hagopian
Last year, the United States learned a great lesson from its public schools: The onslaught of federally mandated standardized tests could be canceled, and it would not trigger the collapse of society.
In fact, during the early months of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the absence of the spring testing season provided a welcome relief to students and families coping with extreme stress.
But that was then.
Now, we are gearing up for another spring testing season, and on Monday, February 22, the Biden Administration decreed that standardized tests outlined in the federal Every Student Succeeds Act shall be required. No ifs, ands, or looking at your neighbor’s answers.
Keep in mind: Betsy DeVos, one of the worst people to serve as Secretary of Education ever, managed to cancel the punitive and educationally destructive spring testing requirements. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration is marching forward with a standardized testing regime that happens to be the centerpiece of corporate education reform.
In a letter to state schools chiefs and governors, the Biden Administration did indicate that states could apply for a waiver that would alleviate some of the most punitive aspects of the high-stakes attached to these tests. And some states have already said they won’t evaluate teachers with standardized tests or won’t use the scores to determine if students will graduate or be promoted to the next grade.
But it’s an ominous harbinger when the Biden Administration deems it permissible for other states to misuse standardized tests, using them as cudgels to harm and punish students and their teachers—especially at a time when so many families are reeling from the stress and trauma of a pandemic that has infected over 28 million people and killed over 500,000 in the United States.
Advocates of corporate testing have suggested that we need these drill-and-kill exams this spring so we can demonstrate the “learning loss” that has occurred as a result of remote schooling.
I would liken people who advocate for high-stakes testing during a pandemic to those who would insist we take a child’s temperature, first thing, after they’d been rescued from falling out of a boat in the waters of the Arctic Ocean.
The absurdity and cruelty, of course, is that we already know that child is suffering. Instead of taking their temperature over and over, what the child needs is to be wrapped with a warm blanket—or, in the case of the public schools scenario, with wraparound services—to begin healing.
We know our youth—particularly the Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)—are suffering as a result of the pandemic. Yet the narrative of learning loss is cynically misleading, and part of a larger deficit model of education that is deeply problematic.
The New York Times contributed to peddling the crisis narrative of learning loss when they editorialized about the impact of remote schooling: “A learning reversal of this magnitude could hobble an entire generation unless state leaders quickly work to reverse the slide.” Likewise, the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company published a report stating, “Learning loss will probably be greatest among low-income, black, and Hispanic students.”
This kind of deficit thinking feeds into racist narratives that proclaim Black students are perpetually behind white students, without acknowledging the incredible strength and brilliance of Black children, or talking about what Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings has called the “education debt” that is owed to Black children because of the systematic lack of support and underfunding of their schools. Moreover, it misses the deep lessons youth are learning, as well as teaching, about the nature of power and privilege in this moment.
Despite the challenges of remote instruction last spring, Black youth turned in one of the grandest group projects in the nation’s history when they organized rallies and took to the streets after police murdered George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade (and too many others). They educated the nation about the depths of structural racism and the effectiveness of solidarity when squaring off with oppression.
As Dr. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Princeton University professor and author of From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, wrote for The New Yorker of the harmful narrative some call learning loss:
The dystopian imagery of a ‘lost generation’ of Black youth is redolent of earlier moral panics: the discoveries of ‘crack babies’ in the nineteen-eighties and “super predators” in the nineties were also rooted in anecdote-driven, pseudo-scientific evidence. Today’s evidence for the spiral of Black children is the tactically vague measurement of “learning loss.” But no one needs to invent a new metric to discover that, during the worst crisis in modern American history, students might be falling behind. It stands to reason that those students who were already victims of the maldistribution of wealth and resources that mars the entire enterprise of public education in the United States would fall behind even more, as those inequities are mapped on the new stresses created by the pandemic.
Here, Dr. Taylor illuminates a key point that begs the question: When are we going to stop trying to endlessly evaluate students—ranking and sorting them based on test scores—and begin actually addressing the savage inequalities (as Jonathan Kozol puts it) that are plaguing students and their families?
While corporate education reformers prattle on about a need for more high-stakes testing to evaluate “learning loss,” what students truly require is the redirection of the billions of dollars wasted on the testing-industrial complex toward supporting educators and students: to gain access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations, as well as psychologists, nurses, social workers, trauma counselors, after-school programs, restorative justice coordinators, and more.
Additionally, the logistical nightmare of administering standardized tests remotely and online will further exacerbate the racism and class bias built into the exams. In a recent survey conducted by Education Week, more than one-fifth of households indicated they continue to lack reliable access to a computer or other digital device; nearly a quarter said they don’t have dependable access to the Internet.
The digital divide between white and BIPOC students will only magnify what researchers have repeatedly demonstrated: that standardized tests do not measure aptitude, intelligence, or even learning; instead, they measure access to resources.
Standardized tests first entered U.S. public schools in the 1920s, at the urging of eugenicists whose pseudo-science proclaimed that white males were naturally smarter. As Rethinking Schools editorialized, “high-stakes standardized tests have disguised class and race privilege as merit ever since. The consistent use of test scores to demonstrate first a ‘mental ability’ gap and now an ‘achievement’ gap exposes the intrinsic nature of these tests: They are built to maintain inequality, not to serve as an antidote to educational disparities.”
One of these early eugenicists was Carl Brigham, a professor at Princeton University and author of the white supremacist manifesto, A Study of American Intelligence. Brigham developed the Scholastic Aptitude Test, which is now just called the SAT.
Some of the most important early voices in opposition to intelligence testing—especially in service of ranking the races—came from leading African American public intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois and Howard Long. In 1924, Horace Mann Bond, in his work “Intelligence Tests and Propaganda,” identified what today we call the “Zip Code Effect,” which highlights that standardized tests measure a student’s proximity to wealth and the dominant culture.
In short, standardized testing has an ugly history. And if the tests go forward this spring, it will be another chilling example of deploying these tests to abuse students. The National Center for Fair & Open Testing—known as Fair Test—has outlined in a national petition three major points about why the spring tests must be canceled:
- The results won’t be valid, reliable, or useful (we don’t need test scores to know that low-income children in poorly resourced schools have fallen even farther behind in a pandemic).
- There are better ways to know how students from different backgrounds and learning needs fared during the pandemic (we should, instead, be focusing on solutions that address poverty, racial inequalities, and school funding disparities).
- Most parents oppose testing this spring (a mid-October “Understanding America Study” found that 64 percent supported exam suspension). Indeed, opposition to testing is strong across all demographic groups, particularly among Black parents, 72 percent of whom favor cancellation.
This is the moment for educators, students, families, caregivers, and community organizers to demand that the Biden Administration provide what our schools need at this time: COVID-19 testing, not standardized testing, and vaccinations, not examinations. And if the administration doesn’t listen, we can make them hear us by opting out kids out of the tests or refusing to give them. Join the rebellion for the schools our students deserve.
Jesse Hagopian is a high school Ethnic Studies teacher in Seattle, an editor for Rethinking Schools magazine, and a campaign director for the Zinn Education Project’s “Teach the Black Freedom Struggle.” He is the co-editor of the books, Black Lives Matter At School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, Teaching for Black Lives, Teacher Unions and Social Justice, and the editor of More Than a Score: The New Uprising Against High Stakes Testing.