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Solving Our Standardized Mess

We have had a long and storied national obsession with the application of standardized tools to address complex problems or circumstances. In the early 20th century, we used standardized intelligence and IQ tests to determine the suitability of groups of people to serve in the military or to hold certain types of jobs in the employment sector. Sadly, the results of this type of testing had the end result of sorting and pigeon-holing huge segments of the population, depriving them of opportunities they may have enjoyed and prospered in. This activity also served as rationale for the denial of immigration into the United States from countries deemed to reflect inferior intellectual potential, reinforcing many of our discriminatory practices.

So, how did this seep into the fabric of American public education?

In a simple word, politics.

Early in the second half of the 20th century, the United States experienced a collective “oops” moment, a giant gulp of our societal awareness as the then Soviet Union successfully launched two Sputnik satellites, not one, but two, within a month of one another. It was 1957. I so remember the impact of this occurrence. We had somehow fallen behind in an invisible race. And now the Soviets had the upper hand.

A knee-jerk reaction was seemingly the appropriate response. While the post World War II national educational agenda under the Eisenhower administration had been lifting up our disadvantaged and most challenged students, the focus shifted. “How do we advance the intellectual capabilities of our most capable students? We need scientists and mathematicians to beat the Soviets at their own game” became the national conversation and education agenda. This shift ushered in the de-personalization of education and the advent of its corrupt cousin: standardization.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, a highly critical report on the status of the American education system was released. Using standardized test scores as evidence, the 1983 A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Education Reform report, suggested that public school leaders had prioritized access over curriculum and equity over excellence, causing the United States to lose its edge in competing with other countries economically and in technological advancement. President Reagan tied access to future federal education funding to increasing test scores. According to the New York State Education Department archives, President Reagan gave over fifty school related speeches during his campaign for reelection in 1984, emphasizing the need to improve student achievement in mathematics, science and technology.

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush convened a summit of the nation’s state governors and cabinet officials to discuss the country’s education priorities. For the life of me, I don’t understand why educators and leaders in the field of education were not invited to the table. Such is the nature of politics. The outcome of this purely political discussion was the establishment of six education goals for the country. They set a lofty timeline: these goals were to be reached by 2000, the dawn of the 21st century.

1) All children will start school ready to learn,

2) The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90%,

3) Students will demonstrate competency in grades 4, 8 and 12 in the subjects of English, math, science, history and geography; and every school in America will assure that all students learn to use their minds well, so that they may be prepared for responsible citizenship, further learning and productive employment in our modern economy,

4) U. S. students will be first in the world in science and mathematics achievement,

5) Every adult American will be literate and possess the skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship,

6) Every school in America will be free of drugs and violence and will offer a safe, disciplined environment conducive to learning.

How are we doing in the year 2021? Well, we’ve fallen significantly short in satisfying goals 1-4. While I wish goal number 6 was the norm, it, along with the second half of goal 3 and goal number 5, remain aspirational.

As national administrations have come and gone, we’ve used standardized test scores to measure outcomes. In 1994, President Bill Clinton introduced his Goals 2000 program, which gave grants to every state to choose their own standards and tests. Then, in 2001, George W. Bush’s administration established No Child Left Behind (NCLB), requiring every student in grades 3 to 8 to take a standardized test in reading and mathematics every year, as well as one test in high school. Test scores would be used to determine whether schools were making “adequate yearly progress.” Test scores would also be used to determine which schools should be sanctioned or punished if they failed to meet the standard of adequate process toward every student demonstrating competency in reading and mathematics by 2014. The Barack Obama administration embraced No Child Left Behind while adding even more ominous sanctions in its program, Race to the Top. Soon, NCLB was succeeded by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Quoting former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch,

“We can say with certainty that the No Child Left Behind program failed to meet its purpose of leaving no child behind. We can say with certainty that the Race to the Top program did not succeed at raising the nation’s test scores “to the top.” We can say with certainty that the Every Student Succeeds Act did not achieve its purpose of assuring that every student would succeed.”

And on it goes with the fate of schools, teachers and administrators, and the opportunities afforded to America’s children defined, and determined by the attained scores of these unreliable tests.

Yes, you read that correctly. The standardized tests that we depend on are unreliable. Here’s why.

These tests are not diagnostic or useful during instruction. The tests are typically administered in the spring of the year. The results are not returned until the following school year, too late to apply as insights to inform instruction. By the time the scores are received, kids probably have different teachers. While the new teacher will see a student’s score, they will not be privy to which questions or types of questions the student got wrong. Quite simply, this process falls into the category of “too little, too late.”

The tests consume valuable instructional time. The typical American instructional calendar is already dreadfully short. Allocating large swaths of this precious commodity to the administration of a test that really serves no other purpose than to rank, brag or punish is counterintuitive. The United States is the only high-performing country who feels the need or