by Rebecca Bauer
When I was in college, my professor told me that education reform is like a pendulum. It will swing to one side, but eventually it swings back to the other. This explanation was his attempt to offer assurance to his classroom full of pre-service teachers, who were already worried about our country’s reliance on high stakes standardized testing.
Last fall, when President Obama called for reduced testing in schools, I grew optimistic. Maybe the pendulum was finally swinging back the other way. Maybe ESSA would successfully deviate from typical testing indicators and encourage classroom observations, student portfolios and other methods of formative assessment.
Fortunately, there were some improvements. As Anne O’Brien’s article, “5 Ways ESSA impacts Standardized Testing,” lays out, states have the power to limit the amount of time spent on testing. In addition, the elimination of Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) somewhat reduces the stakes of high stakes testing.
However, the problems with standardized testing are not limited to the amount of time students spend on them or how high the stakes are. The quality of the test matters, too. That’s why I’m particularly concerned about another way that ESSA changes testing:
The new law allows states to use a nationally recognized test, like the SAT, instead of a state level test.
This concerns me for a number of reasons, the first is that we are further corporatizing our schools. The SATs are designed by a national corporation, College Board, rather than teams of local educators and district leaders. In turn, if schools continue to teach to the test, the curriculum will be designed by this corporation as well. As a variety of sources (Huffington Post, Nonprofit Quarterly, Columbia University) have pointed out, although the College Board is technically a non-profit, it is actually quite profitable. In fact, its CEO took home nearly $700,000 in 2014.
I wouldn’t find this quite as terrifying if the organization’s tests were highly effective measures of student learning, but they are far from it. I recall when I was studying for the SAT, and more recently for the GRE, complaining to anyone who would listen that this test was measuring, first and foremost, my ability to take this test.
Spending countless hours learning to take these tests is more than a simple waste of time though. It also perpetuates societal inequities. My time preparing for the SAT wasn’t spent vying for a computer at the local library but rather sitting at the dining room table with a private math tutor. He taught me a little bit of math, though none that I still remember, and mostly he taught me how to take the test.
This is not merely an anecdote, but rather a reflection on larger trends. In 2015, Inside Higher Ed published an article that drew attention to the major gaps between SAT performance and family income levels citing the following alarming statistic.
In each of the three parts of the SAT, the lowest average scores were those with less than $20,000 in family income, and the highest averages were those with more than $200,000 in income, and the gaps are significant. In reading, for example, the average for those with family income below $20,000 is 433, while the average for those with income of above $200,000 is 570 (Jaschik, 2015).
The article also points out that these inequalities are not limited to socioeconomics, but that on average Black and Latino students score lower on the tests than their Asian and White peers, which could be the result of cultural biases.
Colleges are beginning to realize the flaws with these entrance exams. According to the most recent update from the National Center for Open and Fair Testing, more than 850 schools no longer use the SAT/ACT to admit bachelor’s degree students to the majority of their programs. Among them, include elite colleges such as Wesleyan, NYU, GW, Wake Forest and Middlebury. You can find the complete list here.
So with all of this in mind, I’m left with this question.
If these tests are managed by a particularly profitable “nonprofit”…
If they are racially and economically biased…
If they don’t measure authentic learning linked to a rich curriculum…
And if even colleges (for which the test was designed) have begun to stop using them…
Then why are they good enough for our public schools?
In my opinion, the answer is, they’re not. These tests will not accurately measure how much students have learned in a given year. They may not even measure how prepared they are for college. What they will do is continue to provide unfair advantages to students, particularly white ones, who come from wealthy, educated families.
The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first authorized in 1965, only 11 years after Brown v. Board. At its heart, the law was a commitment to equity and high quality education for all students. This new provision, seems to work in direct opposition to that goal. If we hope to close the achievement gap and create engaging learning opportunities in all schools, we need to think long and hard about what we’re measuring and why.
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