It’s the 900-pound gorilla in the room and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere any time soon. While standardized testing is nothing new, the importance that’s been placed on it has grown significantly over the last few years. While a lot of its significance has dollar signs behind it, that’s not the entire story. So let’s break down what state testing looks like today and why everyone is up in arms over it.
It didn’t use to be like this.
If you attended any sort of school in the United States over the last 60+ years, odds are you took at least one standardized test. When we were kids, however, very little was on the line when we tested. It was used more as a benchmark to see what students knew and they were progressing. The data was given to schools so they could adjust classes and grade levels accordingly… and that was about it.
It’s tied into school funding.
In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act which greatly increased the federal government’s role in public schools. It sounded like a good idea: Let’s use standardized test scores to determine how well schools are performing. It also tied those test results into federal funding, and once money was involved, the emphasis on those scores went through the roof. Schools started receiving grades based on those scores, and if the grades were bad, teachers could lose their jobs, or the schools could be shut down permanently.
School districts get grades, too.
Not only do schools get a grade for how their students do on these tests, but school districts are also graded on how all their schools do. Once again, those grades are largely tied into how much funding the district gets. Districts can also get bonuses and rewards for being considered “high performing”.
Once actual dollars were tied to how well students performed on these tests, it led to a lot of stress and strain on the educational world. Superintendents and principals, who are constantly worried about their budgets, trickled down that stress to the teachers. Teachers were told, both indirectly and in some cases very directly, that these tests were of the utmost importance, and everything you do in the classroom should be geared toward making sure the children will succeed on them.
It’s how teachers are evaluated.
Not only are districts and schools given grades according to these test results, but in some cases, teachers are given grades, as well. If your students drop the ball on the test, it will drop your individual grade. While some say it is a way to determine how successful a teacher is, others say it’s a little unfair considering it puts the value of a teacher into the hands of students who might not even care if they succeed in the first place. Moreover, these grades do not take into account or reflect students’ different learning styles/needs, living situations at home, family/cultural backgrounds, personal life issues, and many other factors that could largely impact their ability to perform well on the test that specific day.
It’s sometimes connected to teacher pay.
As if handcuffing teachers to put all their energy toward one test wasn’t bad enough, some states took things one step further and connected those test results to teacher pay. Merit pay takes those test results, along with other factors, and determines whether teachers get yearly raises or bonuses. A teacher who has low performing students could go years without any pay increase, regardless of why those students are low performing in the first place.
It’s a source of pride.
If you get past all the funding and bonuses and raises, there is also a fair amount of pride on the line when it comes to state testing. Everyone wants to throw a parade and celebrate when they’re a “Grade A” school, but no one shouts their “C+” from the rooftops. That also bleeds over to the parents who naturally want what’s best for their kids. There aren’t many mommies out there who would put a “My child goes to a ‘D’ school” bumper sticker on their minivan.
In the end, it doesn’t look like these standardized tests are going to go away, but recent moves have been made to lessen the importance of them. While it makes sense to find some way to hold schools and teachers accountable for the jobs they do, maybe it isn’t the wisest idea to put that accountability in the hands of a kid who didn’t have breakfast that morning, or who had to walk 3 miles to school because their parents weren’t around, or simply a kid who only got 2 hours of sleep last night because he was busy playing Fortnite. Or for many classrooms, that could be one of all of the above, multiplied by 10, 20, even 30.