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Biden Is Reigniting the Movement to Oppose Standardized Testing by Jake Jacobs (March 22, 2021)

Author: Jake Jacobs

Jacobs, Jake. “Biden Is Reigniting the Movement to Oppose Standardized Testing.”, 22 Mar. 2021,

On December 14, 2019, with the Democratic primaries still up in the air, then-Presidential candidate Joe Biden made headlines promising educators he would end standardized testing.

Biden admitted to thousands of teachers tuning in that teaching to a standardized test “makes no sense.” In a seven-minute soliloquy against the practice, he argued that teachers should determine school curriculum, as they know best how to instill confidence in their students.

But just a month after his Inauguration, amid a deadly pandemic, President Biden announced that testing will continue.

Immediately after Biden’s statement, students, parents, and educators launched petitions and renewed mass opt-out campaigns. American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten called it “dumb,” a “frustrating turn” for Biden, who had credited his wife Dr. Jill Biden—a community college professor and longtime educator—and his deceased wife Neilia, also a teacher, for convincing him of the harms of standardized testing.

Nevertheless, in early March 2021, hope was renewed as a letter urging Biden’s Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to waive the tests was co-signed by Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Representatives Tom Suozzi (New York), Mark Takano (California), and Ilhan Omar (Minnesota). The letter was authored by Representative Jamaal Bowman (New York), who is also the newly elected vice chair of the House Education and Labor Committee.

Dr. Bowman, a former middle school principal in the Bronx, is a longtime leader in the opt-out movement who sees standardized testing as a pillar of systemic racism. The twenty-year educator campaigned promising to fight “invalid” federal testing long before anyone had heard of COVID-19, and is today leading his colleagues in Congress to urge Biden to listen to educators.

To understand the importance of this moment, a little historical background is in order.

In 2002, when the newly-passed federal No Child Left Behind Act mandated standardized tests in math and English in all public schools, it prompted two decades of unabated contention and resistance. From the harm to students, to the waste and fraud in test administration, to the long-term data showing no return on investment, compelling international consensus has emerged against standardization in education.

Today the controversy is compounded by the COVID-19 crisis, with more than a third of U.S. students still learning remotely, and many in social and emotional crisis, prompting many prominent former proponents of standardized testing to change positions.

Not only have achievement gaps persisted or widened throughout the standardized testing experiment, so-called “help” has never come, year after year. In fact, the original No Child Left Behind Act meted out escalating punishments, defunding and closing low-scoring schools, or placing them on closure lists to the delight of charter school developers and investors.

Furthermore, people will be shocked to understand how test scores are computed.

The tests are built largely on multiple choice, which for most students means a long series of guesses. All students begin with a twenty-five percent chance of picking a correct answer, whether they understand the question or not. Then, students who can eliminate another answer have a fifty-fifty chance for credit with a lucky guess.

And year after year, the majority of test-takers fail. In fact, more than seventy percent of students in New York failed in the first year of the hastily implemented Common Core iteration of the tests. So what did the state do?

Well, officials simply changed the “cut scores”—the actual passing/failing threshold between a “2” and “3” quietly, for certain grades, after tests were already taken—adjusting “raw scores” in order to give the Education Department a better press release. In other years, they simply removed questions or entire passages. How is this scientific?

Created by for-profit corporations like Pearson, Questar, or American Institutes for Research (AIR), the tests and the scoring are built upon incomprehensible formulas, broad presumptions, and subjective, developmentally inappropriate benchmarks which prominent statistical organizations repeatedly urged should not be used in high-stakes decisions.

In 2018, the third-to-eighth grade benchmarks for math scores were so out-of-whack with high school benchmarks that three times the number of students labeled “not proficient” in eighth grade did just fine in high school standardized tests the following year.

It gets worse. Students designated as English-learners or students with disabilities have their scores further manipulated, but how is anyone’s guess—practically no one outside of the testing companies has ever seen the hidden proprietary formulas or verified their validity.

In New York, Governor Andrew Cuomo’s 2015 Education Transformation Act required scoring formulas to be made “transparent and available” to all teachers prior to the start of the school year, meaning that concealing the “weights and scorings” actually violates the law. A federal court in Houston ruled similarly in May 2017 that hidden formulas were unverifiable and therefore violated teachers due process rights. In New Mexico, a court injunction made hidden formulas a popular topic in the winning 2018 gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Cuomo, now embroiled in his own harassment and data-fudging scandals, has a dark history of weaponizing flawed tests against teachers whom he once characterized somewhat ironically as sex offenders. “I want to evaluate teachers, and I want to be able to get bad teachers out of the classroom,” he declared in 2014, falsely claiming “there are teachers that have been found guilty of sexually abusing students who we can’t get out of the classroom.”

In 2015, I reported on how little was known, even by New York lawmakers, about test-based teacher evaluations. Assuming math and English teachers were assigned scores from their subjects, how was everyone else—i.e., the majority of teachers—rated? The short answer is that math and English scores are assigned no matter what they teach. Teachers in New York City could pick their preferred subject, and even pick the class, or grade, or a schoolwide average.

What about the rest of the state? Most school districts negotiated a “group measure” to be assigned for every teacher, regardless of the subject being taught, with the score coming from a single “reliable” test like a biology exam. That’s convenient, but—like the rest of the testing regime—it’s entirely arbitrary.

Not to be outdone, New York City’s union is now negotiating the use of a single “citywide” score that averages every student together to arrive at a single score to be shared by every teacher. A masterwork of compliance theater, but again, it’s arbitrary.

New York state parents have boycotted testing from the very beginning in 2001. By 2014, 20 percent of the state was opting out, and in the two counties of Long Island, well over 50 percent refused. But, not told of their right to opt-out, almost all students in New York City were tested.

Originally, students could be held back if they failed the tests, but even after this was rescinded, administrators often did not share this little fact with students, providing a little extra fear-based “motivation.”

NYSAPE, an anti-testing group which circulates parent opt-out letters each year, found many schools deceptively offering prohibited rewards and punishments to boost participation. Around the state, families were fed all kinds of untrue stories, coerced, lied to, or presented with fake hurdles like the need to come in-person to speak to the principal when only a letter was actually necessary.

During Donald Trump’s presidency, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos penalized schools with high opt-outs rates, and for certain metrics, counted students who had opted-out as if they failed the test.

So the claim that standardized tests “help” simply rings hollow today.

As Obama did before him between 2009-2016, Biden has said there will be no federal consequences for opt-outs. But because of the incredibly high potential for opt-outs this year, it begs the question, why bother testing?

As Denisha Jones, professor of education at Sarah Lawrence College posits, canceling tests for two years in a row could be the death knell for the federal mandate, as inertia has been a major factor keeping them around. Considering how unpopular the tests have been, particularly during the 2020 presidential primary, you may wonder who is still pushing them.

Hiding behind the fig leaf of “civil rights” organizations, it inevitably traces back to the same white billionaires, spending millions to commodify education, conduct mass experiments, and kneecap teacher unions. In this revealing 2012 video, the highest ranking politicos in the game convened at a Thomas B. Fordham Institute-hosted soiree for wealthy donors, laying bare a bipartisan plot to blanket the country with campaign cash and astroturf in pursuit of standardized tests, teacher evaluations, and Common Core, grooming a new breed of teachers to overcome resistance to corporate privatization.

It is the same non-educators influencing the debate today: the John Podesta, Bruce Reed, and Ian Rosenblum types who convert billionaire wishes into public policy. But those affected see it differently.

Teachers, myself included, see the harm up close, the labeling, the wasted time, the junk science, the disillusionment, and the tears, vomit, and peed pants. Teachers foresee yet another chaotic testing season, but this time it’s Joe Biden in the White House, seemingly deferring to the world’s richest social engineers.

And because testing “makes no sense,” we can only hope sanity may yet prevail.

Jake Jacobs

New York City school teacher and education blogger. Read more by Jake Jacobs

DMU Timestamp: March 19, 2021 22:17

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