Standardized testing is not the way forward

Schools should instead be focused on teaching and learning

AS WE EMERGED from the pandemic’s constraints, we finally had the freedom to book dinner reservations and plan a summer vacation, but in the midst of that liberation, our students were obligated to the policy of standardized academic testing.

Despite opposition by every Massachusetts professional educational association, the political appointees in the State Board of Elementary and Secondary Education and the commissioner and secretary of education responded to COVID-19 by administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to third to eighth grade students to conclude the school year, even though Superintendent Jeff Riley previously said, “We’ve spent a lot of time on systems and structures, on accountability and test scores.  We need to get back to instruction, and deep teaching and learning.”

What’s going on?  For years, standardized testing advocates have been on the defensive because the tests failed to improve student achievement as promised by reformers. Second, the rise of the testing industry was correlated with growing rates of anxiety and depression among young people. Third, restrs aggravated rather than ameliorated differences in achiuevement among racial and ethnic groups, and between social classes.

Enter climate change strikes that peaked in 2019, the pandemic, and the surge of racial struggles during the past year.  The triple whammy of environmental, health, and societal challenges was surprising and emboldened critics who want a different kind of education that speaks to their concerns and aspirations rather than the clamoring for accountability of distant government bureaucrats.

The critics are no fringe group. For years, public opinion surveys have revealed that a majority of Americans agreed that there was too much testing in schools. Defenders fought back by arguing that the tests are objective, that they inflict little or no damage on students, and that they emphasize that what is taught in schools must be taken seriously. If there are problems with testing, they say, the tests can be revised–but not suspended.

Is there an escape from the impasse?

One path forward is to assign more weight to international testing evidence from countries with similar cultures and systems.  In Canada, like the US, the country’s constitution delegates schooling responsibility to provinces, but, unlike our nation, Ottawa’s federal government has not been involved in the “sticks-and-carrots” school improvement approach that has prevailed here since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act 20 years ago.  Canada’s achievement results have been high in its most populated provinces for the past two decades, without our more extreme forms of testing.

Does Canada suggest a better way forward?  Not entirely. New research with colleague Andy Hargreaves — based on interviews with over 200 educators in 10 Ontario districts — demonstrates that the impact of the province’s “mid-stakes” approach to testing has been severe when it comes to teaching and learning. Teachers reported that in classes at grade levels where students were tested, instruction focused on rote memorization and student engagement was low. In contrast, in classes without testing, teachers were free to innovate; they could and did use their expertise to tap into students’ interests and to guide them to go deep in learning about topics that expanded their horizons and gave them mastery of demanding academic content.  Teachers across groups were damning about the damage that testing inflicted on the most vulnerable students’ sense of well-being—whether these were students with learning disabilities or those from Indigenous or working-class backgrounds. The teachers knew that they could do better for the students—but even mid-stakes pressures of testing led them to revert to traditional and outmoded forms of teaching and learning.

It’s been popular to point to Canada to chastise American educators, and our research does identify admirable qualities of Ontario’s school system, but its testing is not included.  When we want to assess our students’ learning, there is nothing better than tracking their daily learning gains in ways that expert teachers always have done.  The good news is that these are more easily available than ever, as teachers have become increasingly skilled in using online assessments during the pandemic.

Meet the Author

Dennis Shirley

Duganne faculty fellow and professor, Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get our schools focused on teaching and learning rather than testing and accountability.  We must not squander it. It’s going to be arduous, but the trendlines are clear: COVID-19 is winding down in the US, so let’s make dinner reservations and summer vacation plans, and when it comes to schools, let’s make sure our students are free to learn—and that our teachers are free to teach, too.

Dennis Shirley is the Duganne faculty fellow and professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education and Human Development.  His new book with Andy Hargreaves is entitled Five Paths of Student Engagement: Blazing the Trail to Learning and Success.