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First Step in Educational Equity: Move Away from Standardized Testing

December 24, 2020

If the next US ed sec, Miguel Cardona, wants equity in education, he needs to step away from America’s obsession with standardized testing and make better use of the federal education dollars.

To that end, I have the perfect article for him to read, written by my colleague, Andrea Gabor, Bloomberg chair of business journalism at Baruch College of the City University of New York. The excerpts below appear as part of a longer opinion piece in the December 23, 2020, Policy and Politics section of Bloomberg.com:

Education Secretary’s First Task: Curb Standardized Tests

Miguel Cardona will need to address public school inequities by making better use of federal aid.

Andrea Gabor

States and localities are responsible for the lion’s share of spending on public education; yet, as of 2015, only 11 states had funding formulas where high-poverty schools receive more funding per student than low-poverty schools, down from a high of 22 in 2008. When states cut back on their share of aid during the Great Recession, school funding came to rely increasingly on local property tax revenue, benefiting districts with high property values and hurting those where the values are low.

Though it may sound counterintuitive, an important first step the new administration can take to improve educational equity is to abandon the regimen of annual standardized tests that has dominated federal educational policy-making, especially under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Under the best circumstances, standardized tests do little to measure actual achievement, let alone improve it; indeed, the relentless focus on English and math in every grade from third through eighth has shortchanged the teaching of science at the elementary level as well as civics. Given the difficulty of administering tests during a pandemic, any results obtained next spring are likely to be more flawed than ever. 

Eliminating or sharply curtailing standardized tests would save states as much as $1.7 billion and allow districts to reallocate resources. For perspective, that is over 4% of the $39 billion the federal government spends on K-12 education, based on 2018 figures.

Instead, districts could administer diagnostic tests developed by local educators that provide quick feedback for teachers. (The typically long lag time on standardized test results means teachers can’t easily tailor instruction to student needs.) Testing by the National Association of Educational Progress, which is considered the nation’s report card, provides “the ideal gauge” for measuring Covid-19’s impact on students and should not be canceled; NAEP provides state-by-state comparisons and takes demographic criteria like race, income and disability into account.

Cardona should also see to it that the Education Department rewrites the eligibility rules for supplemental federal funds that are meant for the poorest schools. These so-called Title 1 funds constitute the largest share of federal education spending. …

Instead, federal money should be used to reward states that promote funding equity, as well as local desegregation efforts — ideas Biden has endorsed. …

Working with other government agencies, like Health and Human Services, and rewriting Title 1 rules could help tap additional funding for community schools, turning them into hubs that provide counseling, basic medical services and food. A recent study found that providing such “wraparound services” in New York City schools, for example, increased attendance and graduation rates, as well as some test scores.

For more details on how Cardona might better employ federal aid in order to address educational inequity, read Gabor’s piece in full.

Achieving educational equity requires practical solutions. Standardized testing fixation just isn’t one of them.

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2 Comments
  1. speduktr permalink

    “…indeed, the relentless focus on English and math in every grade from third through eighth has shortchanged the teaching of science at the elementary level as well as civics.”

    I would argue that that relentless focus has also shortchanged the teaching of language arts and mathematics by fostering teaching to the test.

  2. Also shortchanged the teaching of arts. These tests are a waste of instructional time and a waste of taxpayer dollars.

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