The Washington Post on Friday entered the Great Testing Debate on the side of the Big Standardized Test. The test has been a federally-required feature of schools for decades, until last spring’s pandemic disruption led to its suspension, and now many folks are calling to skip them again this year.

The Washington Post board boils their support down to a few questions. All of these questions have answers, and none of the answers are “Give the standardized tests this spring.”

How can schools create plans to make up for covid-related learning losses if those losses haven’t been measured?

The Big Standardized Tests will provide little help with this. First, they only cover math and reading. Second, the results take months to come back. So test results will be too little, too late to help districts create any make-up plans.

That said, the idea of learning loss is itself suspect, even a little ridiculous. It’s not that the pandemic won’t have affected student learning; that seems self-evident. But the various write-ups of learning loss are themselves useless, almost always expressing the “loss” in terms of “days of learning.” But “days of learning” is simply a fabricated measure that is really another name for difference in test scores (a fuller explanation is here if you want it). In other words, “we guesstimate students will probably lose X days of learning,” actually means “we guesstimate that students will score an average Y points lower on the Big Standardized Test.” So in a sense, the editors are correct—we can’t measure learning loss without test scores, because learning loss is just another name for test scores.

Finally, the notion of make-up school makes little sense, like hollering at a runner who is falling behind in a race, “Just run faster.” It assumes first that learning is a linear process, with all students on the same track running the same race to the same destination. It further assumes that teachers have at their disposal a hyper-speed version of learning that they ordinarily don’t use, but can somehow deploy in crises. That’s not how this works. That’s not how any of this works.

Students lose a step or two every summer, and every fall, teachers use an array of formal and informal assessments, daily, to see where the students are and what the students need. Big Standardized Test results will tell teachers far less, and none of it will be a surprise.

Wouldn’t knowing which students have been most adversely affected be helpful in directing resources for mitigation efforts? 

It might, if “directing resources for mitigations efforts” were an actual thing that states did. But we have already long known about schools adversely affected by poverty and a lack of resources. Rather than treating low performance as a cry for help, policy makers have treated it as an opportunity for failed school takeovers and charter school expansion that stripped public schools of needed resources.

Additionally, these tests provide very little detail and analytical breakdown of math and reading skills. They’re like a sensor that says, “There’s a fire in this building, somewhere, we think.” Far better to just talk to the people who are currently working in the building, or answer your phone when they call to report a fire.

Don’t parents have a right to know whether their sons and daughters are achieving?

Absolutely. But there’s no reason to believe that the Big Standardized Test can provide that knowledge. Imagine if you called your child’s teacher, today, to ask how Pat is doing, and the teacher replied, “I’ll get back to you in October. And I’ll only give you a single score for math and reading, no details, no other areas discussed.”

The best way to find out how your sons and daughters are doing remains contacting the teachers who work directly with your student.

It is critical that a measure be taken of whether students are learning and whether — as feared — Black, Hispanic and poor children have been most adversely affected. 

Black, Hispanic, and poor students have been “adversely affected” for years. A quick look around your own state and municipality can tell you how likely it is that the folks in charge are about to be stirred into action by pandemic learning losses. There is nothing new happening under the pandemic, no unique form of inequity never before seen. If local leaders have been not stirred to action in the past, what are the chances that bad test scores will spur them into action next fall?

Assessments alone are not the answer to children’s learning challenges, but they provide a crucial tool by shining a spotlight on problems.

They can be a tool, but a crucial one? Not really. The information they provide is limited, meager, and redundant. If you want to know how things are going in the district, talk to teachers and parents.

If the tests provided a small, limited data point, and that was it, this debate might not be worth having. But testing and preparation for testing takes huge amounts of time and lots of money, and in this school year, both resources are already scarce. Insistence on testing, particularly this year, is like a Kafkaesque nightmare in which a worker can’t get their project done because they have to work on a report for their supervisor about their project progress.

Folks who want to advocate for a spring test should be clear. Instead of simply talking about the imagined benefits of such testing, explain which parts of instruction you believe teachers should cut. What should students not be taught in order to make room for testing? Teachers are already struggling to cover ground this year; to ask them to sacrifice even more instruction to make room for a test of little or no utility is a bad choice.



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