A Dear John (Oliver) Letter: How He Broke My Heart Over Standardized Testing

Dear John,   We need to talk. I love you on HBO, I loved you on “The Daily Show,” I even loved you on “Community.” Is there something else you’re in that I should be watching? Because I’m sure I’d love you in it, too. And here’s why: I trust you as a resource for giving me perspective on issues that I don’t know very well ( ahem, net neutrality) and for validating my existing frustrations ( Hobby Lobby, the wage gap, every segment you’ve ever done, etc.). Despite all that love, as someone who works in education policy, I’m frustrated by your latest segment on standardized testing. You make some fair points, to be sure. The teacher whose value-added measure was negatively affected by a statistical error, a Florida student who couldn’t take advanced classes because of her statewide assessment scores—those are heartbreaking examples of policy implementation gone awry. But there’s a reason that you only shared two stories like that: they’re the exception, not the rule. With that said, I want to set the record straight on just a few of the ways you got it wrong on standardized testing.   1. You Ignore the Socioeconomic Implications of the Opt-Out Movement.  This one really hurt, given your reporting on the wealth gap. You showed clips discussing the opt-out numbers in New York, but you don’t mention that those numbers are self-reported by opt-out advocates— likely the worst-case scenario—and are actually showing that less than 1 percent of New York City students have actually opted out.   But more important, the opt-out numbers are disproportionately higher in counties with higher household incomes: Two of the wealthiest counties in New York, with just 18 percent of the state’s students, account for more than 40 percent of the total opt outs in the state. Similarly, the school in Seattle that you highlight has great academics and high-priced real estate. The movement to opt out of standardized tests is wealthy, white and suburban and it does a disservice to our most vulnerable kids. 2. You Mislead on Federal, State and Local Policy.    As I mentioned, the Florida student who was removed from her advanced classes because of her statewide assessment results was an example of policy implementation gone wrong. But that is not a federal policy; it is a state policy. It is misleading to act as though this is the fault of standardized testing as a whole, or even a common practice. Furthermore, you show a clip that says that students take an average of 113 different tests by graduation. What you don’t say, however, is that the majority of these tests are locally mandated by individual schools or school districts. Instead, after talking about the number of tests and the stress they bring, you turn to discussing No Child Left Behind, a federal law. And while you point out that NCLB increased the number of required tests from 6 to 17, you don’t mention that this is over a child’s entire K-12 career, that it accounts for less than 2 percent of their time in school, or where the other 96 tests come from.   3. “Bad for Teachers and Bad for Kids”?? In this segment, you ask, “If standardized tests are bad for teachers and bad for kids, who exactly are they good for?” JOHN, STOP HURTING MY HEART. Here are the ways testing and accountability are good for kids, good for teachers, good for parents, good for our nation and good for what used to be our relationship:
  • Since No Child Left Behind was enacted, we’ve seen improvements in graduation rates, NAEP scores and Advanced Placement access, as well as a reduction in the number of high school drop-out factories.
  • Standardized tests expose achievement gaps, something that has been crucial in improving educational outcomes for African-American students, Latino students, low-income students, special education students and pretty much everyone else.
  • Testing produces data. Without data, how can we be sure if students are learning? Data-driven decision making is a basic tenet of nearly any progressive platform and something that you usually use in your reporting.
And though we have seen great progress, there is still so much work left to do to make sure every student gets the opportunity they deserve. In the end, you’ve diagnosed the problem correctly: We are overtesting our students, and not all of the old tests were home runs. And your solution, “accepting [the test] doesn’t work and fixing it,” is something that we’re already working on. States have voluntarily moved to adopt higher standards and better tests (a.k.a. not the bubble tests you called out) and educators across the country are working to implement these new standards and expectations with fidelity. Just because you chose not to report on it doesn’t mean that people aren’t working to improve the system. Congress is working to improve No Child Left Behind, and removing annual testing from that law would be a grave mistake. Parents ( and civil rights leaders) agree: 91 percent of African-American parents and 93 percent of Latino parents support “fair and periodic standardized testing that allows parents to know that their child is learning what they need to succeed.” The way you’ve covered issues near and dear to my heart, like climate change denial and mass incarceration, has been like a breath of fresh air for me. Which is why it is so hard to say that I think it’s probably best if you and I take a break. Once yours, Valentina
Valentina Korkes is the Deputy Director of Policy at Education Post.
Valentina Payne
Valentina Payne joined Bellwether Education Partners in 2021 as chief of staff to Andy Rotherham on the External Relations team. Prior to Bellwether, she spent seven years at brightbeam, where she most recently served as its chief growth officer, overseeing operations, finance, fundraising, and strategic growth of the organization.

Join the Movement