Standardized testing, like dentistry and auto insurance, is no one’s favorite pastime. But it saves lives. While teachers unions and other anti-testing activists assail the supposed “high stakes” nature of educational testing, we are better served by considering what testing reveals, why it is important for us to have that information, and what would be lost if the anti-testing forces win their war against public accountability. Educational testing, like other forms of auditing our public institutions, is a way for the public to examine the actual data underlying an unequal society. If No Child Left Behind did any good, it was in disaggregating student data and laying bare the racialized educational outcomes that had previously been minimized. As fair people we have to consider the anti-testing arguments. Industrialized education is always capable of making the most exciting things boring, and students in an ever-quickening, digitized, entertainment-addicted world are not great candidates for mundane schooling. It’s true that far too many students are disengaging from school, dropping out and failing to see the relevance it has in the big picture. Surely we don’t want an education system that aggravates the situation by allowing testing to make schooling a joyless fear factory that marches students in a somber line from one bubble sheet to another. It’s a good sign that federal, state and district leaders are realizing duplicative tests that are unconnected to learning standards stir backlash. Allowing testing to grow endlessly rightfully draws charges that it sucks the life out of schooling. That said, I’m not interested in opting out of testing or seeing the state abandon it as a tool. As a black parent, and a black community member who observes history and demands liberation, I need objective data about how my government and my people are doing to address the old struggle for racial justice and social parity. We have learned by experience what double standards can do to create social strife. We know that we have gaps in employment, wealth, law and health. We should be clear about the cause of those gaps. They are born out of the gaps in educational attainment. And, how do we know these gaps exist? We know because we have data that comes from audits, assessments and, yes, testing.
False Link Between School Testing and Prison PipelineThis brings me to share what is possibly the dumbest, and most dangerous thing I’ve heard on this subject. While participating on a panel another speaker from a nationally known campaign said that “high-stakes standardized testing is forcing teachers to teach to the test ,” which is causing students to be bored and misbehave; and, then, “teachers have no choice but to use zero tolerance policies to push students out of school,” which results in the school-to-prison pipeline. It was a taut message that this young man has likely used many times. His organization is deeply aligned with national teachers unions who have a transparent mission to fabricate in communities of color an idea that links school testing and prison. We are to believe that the “school to prison pipeline” is caused by educational assessments, not by poor school design, culturally incompetent workforces, outdated models of education and ineffective classroom instruction. Unfortunately, this message about the perils of testing is growing. National campaigns are producing anti-testing marketing pieces that ask us to believe that the tests are at best inaccurate and promulgated by corporations with a profit motive. At worst, educational testing is said to be a racist, stress-inducing effort that narrows what can be taught in schools, and destroys education by labeling otherwise fantastic schools as “failures.” For me those criticisms miss the mark. We’ve learned from other areas of life just how important testing can be. What would happen if someone came to the black community—or any community for that matter—to suggest that we would be healthier if we would stop HIV testing? What if they made the argument that HIV testing was causing doctors to medicate to the test, or that it was narrowing their practice of medicine and pushing doctors to leave the medical profession because they prefer practicing holistic methods of medicine? As absurd as it sounds we are in fact getting that advice about educational testing. We are being told that “the test” itself, not the disparities it reveals, is the problem.
Can’t Close Achievement Gap by ‘Erasing the Evidence’If we want literate and numerate black citizens who are tooled enough to earn a place in the American mainstream economy then we want the information needed to hold ourselves and our institutions to account. Educational testing done right tells us how our students are situated among all students, how they are progressing (or not progressing); where there are needs for intervention; and how our schools are doing from one building to the next. The tests also predict major troubles in life, including dropping out of high school and the need for remediation in college. If we care about issues of welfare reliance, prison recidivism and economic alienation that too often results from a failed education, then we see testing data as a source of power that illustrates early in our children’s lives the educational disparities that show us where to intervene with life-saving care. What parent would want to be ignorant to the exact nature of their child’s academic health? The idea that we can close the achievement gap by erasing the evidence that it exists is deceitful and it threatens lives. Disparities do not close themselves and there is never a time when we are better off with less information about where those disparities live. For the lives of our children and our people, we need to demand our kids pass the tests—not hide from them.
Chris Stewart is the Chief Executive Officer of brightbeam. He was named CEO in April 2019, after formerly serving as chief executive of Wayfinder Foundation. He is a lifelong activist and 20-year supporter of nonprofit and education-related causes. In the past, Stewart has served as the director of outreach and external affairs for Education Post, ...