A New Way Forward for Our Schools
It seems that end-of-year testing in schools is one aspect of pre-COVID life that has survived the pandemic. Late last week, the NYS Education Department (NYSED) received notice that the US Department of Education (USDE) rejected its request for a waiver from the testing requirements of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). The state must therefore administer standardized exams to students in English language arts and math in grades 3 – 8, science in grades 4 and 8, and one test each of English language arts, math, and science at the high school level, or risk losing federal funding.
The directive to administer the tests is disappointing for many reasons. To name a few, precious instructional time will be lost as students take the exams; funding will be wasted on the administration of these tests, especially given that it is unclear how many students will even take them. (For example, in NYC, students must opt in to take the tests.) Above all, teachers can well identify learning gaps in their classrooms without the aid of these “standardized” tests, and results are regularly available too late to make the credible case that they inform instruction.
But there is a far more important concern. This directive is indicative of the federal government’s willingness to perpetuate into the future a test-driven accountability approach to education that has failed for decades in its goal to elevate student outcomes. The obvious question: why would we continue a flawed system that has not produced expected and desired results?
The current federal orientation has roots in Goals 2000 legislation (and, some would argue, A Nation at Risk, 1983), but was more systematically ensconced in 2002 with the passage of No Child Left Behind, and continued with the Race to the Top initiative in 2009 (and Common Core Learning Standards) and the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015. A summary glance back reveals that these initiatives have not met stated goals; most glaring is that No Child Left Behind’s goal of 100 percent student proficiency by 2014 was not attained. And, in NYS in 2019, 47 percent of students in grades 3 – 8 attained proficiency on the NYS state test in math; and only 45 percent of students attained proficiency on the English Language Arts assessment. Further, for the past decade, performance of NYS students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, (and also nationally), has been stagnant.
This is a blunt summary analysis to be sure—there have been many twists and turns in the educational landscape in New York since the implementation of No Child Left Behind, including changes to the curriculum and to the testing regime. And ESSA provides a flexibility in definitions of accountability that No Child Left Behind did not. But the big picture is clear. After decades of a test-driven accountability approach, in New York, fewer than half of our children are performing at a level of proficiency. And on top of that, we are nowhere even close to the equity in outcomes—for impoverished communities and children of color—that this testing promised, as part of the standards-based reform movement.
We have been immersed in a test-driven accountability system that emphasizes outcomes, even as it tries to promote inputs through curriculum standards. It proclaims that school- and district-level accountability will drive student-level achievement. But the relentless march toward an end-of-year test, including exams that are required for graduation, overpowers all else, drawing attention and energy away from the actual teaching and learning process. In this academic outcome-oriented focus, the end result dominates. Casualties of this approach—creativity, social and emotional health, non-tested subjects such as social studies and art, acceptance of learning differences—are strewn in its wake.
What is it going to take for us to acknowledge that this approach isn’t working? Will it take another decade of mediocre results? We fret about the education lost in this year of the pandemic, and yet a larger contributor to that loss has gone on far longer; sanctioned, operationalized, and paid-for (expensively, by taxpayers). And it is right under our noses.
A reimagined approach would place students—not the tests—at the center. It would balance the content of instruction and mechanisms for delivery with time and attention to other important outcomes, like engagement and mental health, that are difficult to quantify. It would require holistic thinking that incorporates the priorities and goals that drew us to standards and testing years ago—core proficiencies are critical, accountability is important, and we do need a way to ensure that all children get a quality education, regardless of their zip code. But also, with the gift of hindsight, it would reflect an understanding of how much we sacrificed to achieve mediocre results.
We need to learn from this history to avoid repeating it. We need to move forward, thinking about the process of education, and how to measure student success, very, very differently, so that we actually have systems and data that can truly help us to improve it.