Hammer Time!

We need to recognize once and for all that standardized tests work best when they serve as a flashlight on what works and what needs our attention – not as hammers to drive the outcomes we want in education from the top down, often pointing fingers to those with greater needs and less resources. 

– Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona (1/24/2023)

In the midst of a stirring call to Raise the Bar and Lead the World, Sec. Cardona said that we must use standardized tests, presumably state tests, as a flashlight instead of a hammer.

On cue, the regular crowd shuffles in with their well-rehearsed and well-worn criticisms of standardized testing in this so-called era of test-based accountability.

Testing narrows the curriculum.

Testing forces people to cheat.

Testing sucks the soul out of teaching and the life out of kids.

And my all-time personal favorite:

This is not the way test publishers intended their tests to be used.  

Channeling my inner Dana Carvey for a moment.

Well, isn’t that special. How con-veen-ient.
What has been the barrier to true education reform?
Could it be …. SATAN?

You know, you just have to insert one ‘A’ into the beginning of standardized to reveal satan. Coincidence? Oh, that it were so easy.

Before we metaphorically put down our pencils, close our test booklet, and turn the page on standardized testing, let’s take a moment.

As the big sign and bold letters directed us at the end of every test session,  just Stop!

Like the 2022 NAEP results, let’s return to the 1990s.

Let’s pull on our balloon pants, stare directly in the mirror, and ask ourselves the hard questions.

Look in My Eyes, Man

Do we really need more light to understand the challenges faced every day by educators across the country?

Grab a Maglite or an As Seen on TV Atomic Beam Flashlight. Hell, use the lights that turn the White House pretty colors or the freaking Luxor Sky Beam.

What do you think you will see?

Those lights will reveal many of the same sights that Bobby Kennedy saw in the 1960s when as a senator from New York he walked through Bedford Stuy alone or as US Attorney General he visited schools along West Virginia’s country roads. Sights that led him to advocate for the use of standardized testing to monitor and evaluate whether funds distributed through the newly established Title I program were being used effectively, and where and for whom they were supposed to be used.

Those lights will reveal many of the same sights that Gov. George W. Bush saw in poor districts across Texas in the 1990s. Sights that led him to the conclusion that standardized testing was necessary to answer the rarely asked question about whether our children were learning.

Were the lights not shining brightly enough during the past three pandemic years?

What will the flashlight reveal that we don’t already know?

The results of standardized testing have shone a spotlight on what works and what needs our attention for more than a half century.

Why then is it the prevailing, almost universal, view that standardized tests are hammers and not flashlights?

Well, a flashlight can feel an awful lot like a hammer when it’s used to hit you over the head year after year after year, showing you things that you simply don’t want to see.

And why don’t we want to see what the standardized testing flashlight reveals?

U Can’t Touch This

School funding – You Can’t Touch This

Even as operating costs soar and income inequality grows, public school systems continue to rely on local revenue, often from property tax, for almost half of their funding.

Here in Maine, it took the COVID pandemic, and the federal windfall that accompanied it, for the state to meets its obligation to provide 55% of school funding for the first time ever.

Serious efforts to integrate schools – You Can’t Touch This

We have a super dope VP from the Oaktown (well, Berkeley) who feels her life was changed by the yellow school bus she rode as a child in the Berkeley Public Schools. Yet we still have a Kappan article about attendance zone boundaries leading to segregation within suburban public school systems.

Forget any discussion of inter-district desegregations efforts.

Local control over curriculum – You Can’t Touch This

We know that rigorous state content and achievement standards are only the tip of the iceberg, and barely worth the paper they used to be printed on if not accompanied by high quality curriculum, instructional materials, and instruction. Curriculum and instruction, however, remain under local control in many states across the country.

Daily School Schedules – You Can’t Touch This

Even after decades of research on the benefits of later start times for high schools, progress is slow and the debate often centers around bus schedules, childcare, and work schedules.

Statewide teacher contracts – You Can’t Touch This

Teacher Evaluation – You Can’t Touch This

Early Childhood Education – You Can’t Touch This

Changing the School Calendar – You Can’t Touch This

The list could go on and on.

For a long, long time now, the issue hasn’t been that the problems schools face are hidden in darkness, or even that we don’t know how to solve them.

To a large extent, in my opinion, the issue has been the lack of a sense of urgency, resolve, or as Sec. Cardona put it, the collective will, to do what it takes to address and solve them.

It’s simply not enough to go with the flow,

It’s simply not enough to wave your hands in the air.

Either work hard or you might as well quit.

 Break it Down!

What we need to recognize once and for all is that it’s going to take more than a flashlight to break through the barriers and tear down the walls, inside and outside of schools, that have put limits on what it’s possible to accomplish through education reform alone.

It’s going to take hammers, lots of hammers.


All kinds of hammers.

Hammers 2

Disrupting the current system. Hammers.

Re-imagining public education. Hammers.

Raising a Bar that has been rusted in place for more than a century. Hammers.

Building the public education system our country needs and our kids deserve. Hammers.

Why you standing there, man?
Yo, sound the bell, school is in, sucker.

And pick up a hammer.

Header image by Bernd from Pixabay
All other images also from Pixabay

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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