Why is this time different?

The K-12 testing industry survived, even flourished, during past economic downturns. There are signs, however, that this time might be different.

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 Charlie DePascale

There have been two major economic downturns in the past twenty years: the bursting of the Dot-Com bubble in the early 2000s and the Great Recession of 2008.  Much like the proverbial cockroach in a nuclear winter, the K-12 standardized testing industry emerged from each not only unscathed, but in fact, strengthened.

In the early 2000s, the savior was No Child Left Behind (NCLB).  When Assistant Secretary of Education Susan Neumann declared, Let them use multiple-choice tests, it was off to the races.  Testing companies were the cock of the walk, strutting their stuff, spreading feathers that had been ruffled during the Psychometric Spring of the 1990s, and exalting in the good fortunes brought by the ‘No Psychometrician Left Behind Act’ or the ‘Psychometricians Full Employment Act’ that mandated annual testing of all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.

In the latter part of that decade, it was President Obama to the rescue with NCLB waivers and the Race to the Top Assessment program.  Fears that the new administration would reduce required testing proved to be unfounded. Testing companies continued to feed at the federal trough and roll around happy as a pig in an internal alignment study. Like pigs being fattened for slaughter, however, they never saw what was coming.

The structure laid out in the Obama blueprint for reform contained heavy pillars that strained the sandy foundation of K-12 standardized testing.  To a greater degree than might be apparent, the success of standardized testing in schools relies on a longstanding social contract with local educators and communities.  As long as the tests do not take too much time and have no real consequences everything is fine. NCLB might have pushed the boundaries of that contract, but the requirements that the new assessments measure college-and-career readiness standards and be used to measure teacher effectiveness tore the social contract to shreds.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) removed the teacher evaluation requirements of the NBLB waivers and states have made repeated concessions on the length of tests, but a social contract once violated is difficult to restore.

Accountability and Equity

K-12 standardized testing, of course, relies on more than a social contract with local educators.  The dual principles of accountability and equity have been the driving force behind federally mandated assessment since the early days of the original Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) passed in 1965.  Sen. Robert Kennedy pushed for the evaluation of Title 1 programs funded by ESEA as a tool for providing information to parents that federal money was being spent wisely to improve student outcomes; a theme echoed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan throughout the Obama administration.  From the very beginning, standardized tests became the tool of choice to provide that accountability.

The close link between accountability and equity resulted in standardized testing receiving bipartisan support. NCLB with its assessment requirements was championed by President George W. Bush and Sen. Edward Kennedy, perhaps the last truly bipartisan bill passed by Congress.  There are clear signs, however, that standardized testing is no longer viewed as a tool to promote equity; and to the contrary, is perceived as a threat to equity.

Wearing the Black Hat

In response to a question posed at a candidates’ forum last December, presumptive democratic nominee Joe Biden seemingly declared that he would end standardized testing in public schools.

“Given that standardized testing is rooted in a history of racism and eugenics,” the audience member asked, “if you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools?”

“Yes,” Biden responded. “As one of my friends and black pastors I spend a lot of time with . . . would say, you’re preaching to the choir, kid.”

The premise of the question may seem extreme, but it is becoming quite mainstream.

  • In her 2019 presidential address, AERA president Amy Stuart Wells described testing policies as the Jim Crow of education.
  • Last spring, an uproar over a passage and prompt on the Massachusetts 10th grade English language arts test led to the item being dropped and rules for meeting graduation requirements loosened in an “abundance of caution” over concerns for stereotype threat.
  • Late in 2019, a lawsuit was brought against the University of California system regarding the use of the SAT and ACT in college admissions, not necessarily because the tests are flawed technically, but because the use of the tests “privilege affluent families who can afford to send their children to tutoring,” and “illegally discriminates against applicants on the basis of their race, wealth and disability.”
  • This weekend, the National Council on Measurement in Education faced with offering only one virtual session from the 2020 NCME Conference program chose a session with the following description: “If learners vary in their cultural experiences, appreciations, characteristics, and needs, all aspects of culturally relevant pedagogy may need to reflect such variations. However, educational assessments have been most resistant.”

Standardized tests have been challenged for decades over technical concerns related to test bias.  The current challenges, however, go beyond technical issues that can be easily fixed through adjustments to the test development or scoring process.

Although the loss of trust among educators and concerns over equity may be serious threats to the continued viability of standardized testing, the greatest threat may come from within the field itself.

Necessary, maybe, but not sufficient

While the panelists in the NCME session described above did not spend much time addressing the cultural relevance of assessments, they did spend a great deal of time discussing the need for assessments to measure more and different things than the knowledge and skills that are currently being measured effectively through traditional on-demand, large-scale assessments.

The past five years have demonstrated clearly that the English language arts and mathematics college-and-career readiness standards that were a byproduct of state testing during NCLB  require different kinds of assessments than traditional standardized tests.  An NRC committee on designing assessments for the Next Generation Science Standards concluded that large-scale standardized tests were only part of a comprehensive assessment solution.  A handful of states across the country, including standardized testing stalwarts such as Louisiana and Massachusetts are exploring alternative methods of assessment under the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority provision of ESSA.

This Time May Be Different

Although a President Biden may not fully retreat from the testing policies he implemented as vice-president, this time may be different.  As the COVID-19 crisis shrinks state budgets and schools refocus on what is really essential, a return to fully embracing a standardized testing system that was meeting few stakeholder needs would seem unlikely.  Standardized testing may remain part of the evaluation process for years to come, but it will likely be a much smaller part than it has been in the past; and traditional testing companies should not expect the boom time they experienced in 2002 and 2010.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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