I have been against standardization for a long time. Standardized testing is a billion dollar industry in this country. So apparently it won’t go away anytime soon, which is a pathetic shame. The companies that run the tests and create all of the test prep materials have strong lobbyists who spend millions to influence policy at both the state and federal level. So as usual, business pursuits have a larger influence on policy than the viewpoints of experts, the educators in the field.
Therefore I am deeply disappointed in the Biden administration’s mandate for states to test students this spring. But I am not surprised. Poor education policy is one of the few consistently bi-partisan agendas in the United States. Going back to Reagan, every president and their Department of Education, has looked on public schools negatively, needing to be fixed. Republicans, exemplified by Betsy DeVos, seek to demonstrate public education’s failures to advocate for charters or vouchers for private schools. They also hate teacher unions. Democrats, while saying they want to improve failing schools, hold schools accountable through rigid, biased testing.
Think about it. We just went from Bush’s utopian nonsense of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) to Obama’s Race to the Top. Until we fix all of society’s ills and inequality there will be children left behind. The major reason that children are left behind is the caste system in the United States that divides people into different classes with different benefits. Education alone cannot fix this societal problem.
Obama’s analogy of Race to the Top is antithetical to equity. Every race that I know of has winners and losers. So Democrats are hypocritical when they want to use testing for equity. Let’s not forget that Biden was part of the Obama team and seems reluctant to find a new path. There are definitely equity issues in public education, particularly in funding structures that favor wealthy suburban districts over rural and urban areas in many states.
It’s been 20 years since NCLB launched the profitable obsession with standardized testing. At best it identified inequity between different learners in schools, but offered no solutions. We now understand the problems in education and continued testing will have zero effect on solutions. Instead we need to shift pedagogy.
I recently read Dr. Yong Zhao’s An Education Crisis is a Terrible Thing to Waste. He expounds on the need for schools to shift to:
- Relevant learning
- Student agency and autonomy
- Personalized learning
- Product-oriented entrepreneurial schooling
- Globalized learning beyond the classroom
Basically PBL done at a high level, seated in the community with tons of student autonomy. The book gives many examples of what this looks like in different settings around the world. And all of this was written before Covid-19 shocked the world and radically challenged the system by forcing virtual, hybrid, or socially distant learning. Many others have written about how unethical, unhealthy, and unfair standardized testing is during a global pandemic. It is stressful for educators and students alike with no positive benefits. While agreeing, I want to go further and get rid of it all together.
At the same time that Biden was announcing that states must continue testing, Edutopia released new research supporting PBL as a better way forward. Covid-19 is a chance to re-evaluate everything about the education system. We know what’s broke. We know testing won’t fix it. PBL offers a better path for all students. True leadership would take this opportunity to make a major shift in the pedagogy of schools in this country. All students deserve the opportunity to pursue their own passions in meaningful ways. The best way for them to learn the skills that they need to be successful is by doing authentic tasks in their community and beyond.
While educators obviously cannot depend on the federal government to make the right decisions regarding testing and pedagogy, we are not powerless. We can choose to ignore test scores and shift to meaningful learning experiences with our students. When parents are brought into conversations about pedagogical shifts to Project Based Learning, they will be supportive and students will thrive. It’s on us to make this happen!
LOVE, B. (2020). We Want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist teaching and the pursuit of educational freedom. Boston, MA: Beacon.
Zhao, Yong. EDUCATION CRISIS IS A TERRIBLE THING TO WASTE: How Radical Changes Can Spark. TEACHERS COLLEGE Press, 2019.