The future of the big standardized test is in doubt. This year’s pandemic pause made the annual rite of spring both logistically impossible and generally pointless as a means of data collection. With the year thoroughly disrupted, there was no chance that the tests would generate any sort of usable information, but their cancellation raises two more questions—wouldn’t testing next year be equally pointless, particularly when the time could be better spent helping students catch up, and wouldn’t a two-year hiatus be the perfect time to end the practice entirely?
This could be the end, but the annual Big Standardized Test still has its supporters. Some argue that even more testing will be required when schools open, perhaps to determine if students move up a grade, while one advocate tweeted that scrapping the tests means “we’ll fly blind.” That echoes the argument for the high stakes tests that has been pushed since the early days of No Child Left Behind—if there’s no Big Standardized Test, then policymakers, administrators, researchers, parents, taxpayers and students will not know what is happening inside each school.
As this argument is revived, it’s worth reminding ourselves what the tests do—and do not—measure.
The testing regimen (PARCC, SBA, your state’s special flavor, etc) is a standardized test focused on math and reading skills.
Do you want to know how well students are doing in the study of science or history? In most states, the test won’t tell you.
Do you want to know the depth of student knowledge about a body of literature? The test won’t tell you.
Do you want to know how strong the school’s arts and music programs are? The test won’t tell you.
Do you want to know if your child is likely to grow up to enjoy “positive life outcomes”? The test won’t tell you.
Do you want to know if your child is maturing into a responsible and healthy young person? The test won’t tell you.
Do you want to know if the school is providing a safe environment? The test won’t tell you.
Do you want to know if your child has a solid knowledge of US civics and government? The test won’t tell you.
You get the idea. There is a long list of things that people have in mind when they ask “How is this school doing” that are not addressed by the test.
And what the test does address, it doesn’t address very well. School results can be predicted fairly effectively just by using demographic information, and individual student results take far too long to come back for them to be of any use to classroom teachers.
The notion that parents, teachers and students will have no idea what’s going on in their school unless they can see scores from that one special test is absurd. When students return, teachers will do what they have always done. They will do their own formal and informal assessments of students for quick, on the spot information about where those students are. They won’t be flying blind, and they won’t miss the scores from the Big Standardized Test.