Why educators need to be really clear about the benefits of testing

While standardized testing polls high, it's not an issue to which many people are deeply committed
By: | February 3, 2022
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The future of testing post-COVID may be driven more by politics than by what educators most want to know about their students’ progress, says Jack Schneider, an associate professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell.

“This is not just about testing, this is about state power over schools, and federal power over states and schools,” Schneider says. “And that has been separated from any questions we might have about how students are doing and whether we need standardized assessments to answer those questions.”

And while standardized testing isn’t going away, Schneider expects there to be a “brokered compromise” between those who view assessments as an indispensable part of the government’s management of education and those who see the tests as limits on school districts’ autonomy over teaching and learning.

This compromise could include a move away from the idea that we have to test every student, every year to generate valid and reliable data. He also expects to see a lessening of the stakes around standardized testing, as the Obama’s administration ESSA “lowered the temperature” from the strict accountability policies of George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind policy.

“There’s too much evidence that tying stakes to results of assessment distorts the results and distorts the process,” he says.

Finally, Schneider anticipates that tests will begin to gauge data beyond English language art and math performance. Exams, for instance, could begin to measure social-emotional learning, student engagement, their sense of safety and how they are developing as citizens.

“If you measure schools only on a narrow basis then you’re just asking for a range of unintended consequences, like teaching to the test and narrowing the purpose of school,” Schneider says.

Actual benefits for students

The last two years of disrupted testing and questionable results could create a slippery slope for standardized testing and even an erosion of support, says Paul Bruno, an assistant professor of education policy, organization, and leadership in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

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While standardized testing polls high, it’s not an issue to which many people are deeply committed. “If I were a staunch advocate of standardized testing, I would be concerned about long-term political support if it’s hard to justify to people why you are administering them a time many schools, students and staff already feel overwhelmed,” Bruno says.

This climate could make it essential that educators and policymakers tell a clear story about the benefits of standardized testing. “You can’t just say we can’t fix what don’t measure,” Bruno says, “You have to be detailed about how you will use specific information from specific tests.”

The most potentially persuasive argument for tests is that the results will be used to provide targeted support to students who need it most, and not for school accountability or even research, he says. “It’s important for school and district leaders to have their own testing policies, to have a clear theory of action that is going to take you, step by step, from the policy you are implementing to actual benefits for students.”