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standardized tests

We Can't Shake the Test, But We Can Maximize Its Value

When it comes to standardized testing, President Obama’s new  action plan is right on the money. We shouldn’t be spending as much time on testing as we are. Even in my charter high school, where we were supposed to be shielded from some of the craziness of our district’s push for testing, I would argue that we probably had more test prep than other public schools. That testing ate up a lot of time that could have been used for other things. For instance, as a Mexican American, I would have loved to learn about the presence, history and contributions of Latinos in the United States. It is a topic that is largely absent in curricula across the country, but could help empower young Latinos everywhere as they begin to develop questions of identity and what it means to be a Latino in the United States. Also, I think there is something to be said about classes, coursework or internships that educate young kids on the vast range of possibilities in the workforce. For kids to succeed as adults, they must be provided opportunities when they are young that guide them towards their passion.

Unlocking the Door of Potential

Still, it is important to remember that sometimes a test can open a door for a kid. I was one of those kids. As a freshman in high school, my GPA was a 1.5. My mind was on the streets, not on school. Though my principal, teachers and mentors at  Mikva Challenge helped me change my mindset, overcoming that shaky start was tough. Even as a senior my GPA was only a 3.0, which research shows is the bare minimum necessary for a Chicago Public Schools graduate to succeed in college. What really got me into college (and made it financially accessible) was my ACT score: a 26. It supplemented what was missing in my GPA and helped me gain admission into Dominican University, where I expect to graduate next May. Until more colleges and universities stop using tests for admissions and especially for financial aid, some tests will not only be worth taking, they will make higher education more accessible. At my high school, we prepared for the ACT starting in freshman year. Almost every class as juniors and seniors had a small to significant ACT component added to our lessons. We would take portions of the test frequently, and we dreaded it. It became excruciating. I don’t know whether our test scores justified the time and pain spent in preparation, but I think it might have helped a bit. Because universities and scholarships take this score heavily into consideration, many of us managed to get accepted to college and were able to get the financial aid necessary to enroll.

Assessing Our Teachers

I understand that standardized tests have become part of the push to hold teachers accountable for student outcomes. But they need to be fair, realistic and focused on growth. That runs counter to the sense I had in high school that teachers were always under pressure to get us to hit a specific ACT score, such as the national average of 21. Moreover, a teacher’s performance has to be viewed more holistically. President Obama is right. A test score should be just one of multiple measures used to assess a teacher. A teacher’s involvement in teaching students how to play an instrument or learn a new language, a teacher’s generous time commitment to mentor at-risk students, or a teacher’s assistance in navigating first-time college applicants through the financial aid process are all things that are not reflected in a score but that could be reflected in a student survey. As long as access to higher education and financial aid is dependent on a test score, test prep will remain a necessary evil. We can’t shake it entirely, but we can put it in its rightful, smaller place.    
Berto Aguayo
Berto Aguayo is currently interning at the United States Senate with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute. He is a recipient of the 2015 Illinois Lincoln Laureate award and expects to graduate summa cum laude from Dominican University in 2016, with degrees in political science and economics.

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