Assessment for Equity and Excellence

Throughout my teaching career in New York City public schools, I considered myself extraordinarily lucky.  As a social studies teacher at Urban Academy and The Beacon School, both members of the New York Performance Standards Consortium (NYPSC), I had the freedom most professional educators only dream of. Because our schools have a waiver from Regents standardized graduation exams, I got to design my own curriculum.  

Without relief from the state tests, teachers don’t have that luxury since they must cover mandated material and teach to a test.  By contrast, I got to respond to the actual interests and needs of my students. I also was able to evaluate their thinking and abilities using a system of performance-based assessments. My courses culminated in projects where students demonstrate mastery of relevant knowledge and skills.  

My students wrote interpretive essays and research papers, analyzed evidence and data, engaged in debates, produced podcasts, and interviewed experts in the field.  In other words, they modeled the real-world tasks of historians, lawyers, and economists.  If we want teenagers to turn into functional citizens, we have to have them practice what adults in various disciplines actually do.  That needs to be a primary purpose of schooling.

We need to make K-12 public education for students of all economic, social, racial, and ethnic backgrounds look like the intellectually challenging and student-centered practice found in those schools.  Equity demands it.  Poor kids and students in marginalized communities deserve the same quality of education as kids going to elite private schools. They should not have to waste precious hours of learning time on worksheets in preparation for state tests. 

As the new Executive Director of FairTest I want this to be our mission.  More standardized testing is not necessary to shine further light on the unmet needs of poor kids and kids of color.  We know why and how we are failing young people with under-resourced public education.   We should be striving to implement curriculum and systems of assessment based on the successful models (like the New York Performance Standards Consortium, Big Picture Learning and others) and continue to pilot new ones that serve students who desperately need quality public education. We must expand the schools that challenge all young people to develop and demonstrate real world skills and provide them with the tools to fully participate as democratic citizens.

The challenge of making K-12 education responsive, rigorous, interesting, and empowering is tied to the challenge of preparing kids for college and making higher education accessible.  In recent years, FairTest has been the go-to source in the fight against excessive reliance on standardized tests as the gatekeeper of higher education.  The recent shift of most four-year colleges and universities to a standardized test (SAT and ACT) optional (or test free) admissions policy is a step forward.   Colleges have realized that without requiring a standardized entrance exam, they can create student bodies that are more socioeconomically and racially diverse, and more representative of the population at-large without sacrificing their academic and productive potential. Those in and outside the college community need to keep in place the new thinking that standardized tests add virtually nothing of value to admissions decisions, while reinforcing pre-existing prejudices and inequities.

The progress in college admissions will be undercut, however, if we fail to address the real barriers to quality education and good teaching. We must redouble our efforts to fight unnecessary testing that still pervades the public-school landscape.  

For over a decade after the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in 2001, the attention of the public and the K-12 education world focused on the law’s test score accountability emphasis. At that time, FairTest rallied allies against the folly of the punitive testing regime.  Backlash against the massive over and misuse of standardized testing and its high stakes consequences spurred pockets of resistance across the country, through parent opt-out movements and student and teacher protests. 

Ultimately, the governing establishment realized that the goals of NCLB were a pipe dream and the accountability system was not producing either better test results or better education.  The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) signed by President Obama in 2015 did provide some relief and potential for alternative systems but far from eliminated the heavy hand of standardized testing from our educational systems.  

Students in K-12 systems should be engaging in “deeper learning” and  producing work that is authentic while demonstrating content mastery, individual identity, and creativity.  But the perceived need to rank and sort students, teachers and schools has prevented major alterations to the “grammar of schooling” and its essential element, the extensive use of standardized testing as a high stakes evaluative tool.  

The forces of standardized test-based accountability are redoubling efforts to maintain outmoded systems of accountability at the state and local level.  Their cry is for more testing so we can know where students are every step of the way.  

Policymakers get more than enough information about our schools and students from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) – an appropriate sampling system – without perverting daily education and adversely impacting students and teachers. NAEP’s 2022 results just confirmed what we already knew: that COVID and remote learning were very bad for education and particularly horrible for socioeconomically disadvantaged students.

The solution is not spending more precious classroom time and taxpayer money to create spreadsheets of data.  Kids need more teaching and learning, not more external measurement.  Classroom teachers receive plenty of timely information about where students are from their daily assignments and interactions. Imposing computer-based testing like the MAP exams to give teachers “real time” information frustrates professional educators and interferes with the process of learning.  Excessive testing crushes the classroom joy necessary to keep kids functioning in school. 

Many stakeholders are already working to both limit the imposition of standardized testing that undermines educational quality and to support the development of authentic assessments tied to rich curriculum that promote deeper learning.  FairTest is collaborating with the National Education Association to develop model policies and legislation for appropriate testing use. We provide information and strategic advice to parents and grassroots advocates for assessment reform. We applaud and seek to support states, like New York and Kentucky, who have won grants from the Department of Education to develop systems of assessment that are performance and competency-based rather than tests of rote learning.   

If the pandemic taught us anything, it is that kids need school for a whole host of intellectual and social reasons.  Standardized testing is not one of them.