Why The Test Debate Is About Politics, Not Education

Jeff Bryant

Here’s how ridiculous the nation’s obsession with standardized testing has gotten: Last week Education Week reporter Catherine Gewertz came across a news item about a school in Florida that “forbid the flushing of toilets during testing … to cut down on the distraction.” (emphasis original)

As she quoted from her news source, the school administrators feared, “The whooshing water sounds from classroom bathrooms … might disturb test-taking classmates and send their focus, and their scores, spiraling down the drain.”

Before you dismiss that as just one “over the top” anecdote, consider that the big new assessment fad sweeping the nation is to demand testing of our youngest students, the earlier the better. In Maryland, for instance, as a Washington Post article reported, a “kindergarten readiness assessment” to see if little kids are “ready” for kindergarten has teachers worried. The exam on “language, literacy, math, science, social studies, and physical well-being” took the students “at least one hour, and sometimes more than double that.” This is not unusual, as the reporter explained, because “at least 25 states mandate a kindergarten readiness assessment and this is likely to rise.”

It’s true that many educators have used some form of “school readiness” assessments on little kids for years. But those primarily consisted of very small tasks and brief observations – nothing like what we’re seeing now. And, as the reporter noted, “kindergarten teachers across the country are raising … objections.”

We all know the reason for this. Although educators administer the tests, test-ocrats took over education policy with the advent of No Child Left Behind in 2002, so now, what happens in the classroom is not nearly as important as what spits out of an algorithm designed by some wonk working in a cubicle in L’Enfant Plaza.

Back when NCLB was conceived, conservatives wanted the testing because they weren’t going to give away tax money without some very heavy strings – more like shackles this time – attached. Liberals wanted it so they could make state governments do what too many of them have loathed to do throughout our history: Provide an equitable education to all students, regardless of their race, income level, language, or ability level.

By 2014, all students were to be scoring at the proficient level on standardized tests, an impossible goal that no other nation in the world – except Lake Wobegone – has ever accomplished.

When U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan took over in 2009 and saw the 50-car pile-up that was going to happen down the road, he designed all sorts of clever workarounds to NCLB that would – wait for it – put even more emphasis on the tests and tie them to all sorts of high-stakes decisions affecting teachers, principals, and schools.

Now, conservative governors are complaining that all the testing is administratively and financially untenable, and left-leaning parents, educators, and public school advocates are incensed at how testing has subverted the purpose and goals of education, and a full-blown test rebellion is underway.

Policy leaders in Washington, D.C., have finally gotten wind of this situation and have sprung into action.

How is the debate going? See if this makes sense to you:

Conservatives want to let states have potentially more options for wasting taxpayer money on wayward attempts in “accountability,” and liberals are insisting on continuing measures that have been mostly bad for the education of black and brown students.


A closer look reveals that Republicans led by Minnesota’s John Kline in the House and Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander in the Senate are resolved to remake NCLB, something that has been tried off and on in Congress since 2007. Kline has announced intentions to “dismantle NCLB,” and now Alexander has a draft proposal that includes, as Education Week’s Lauren Camera and Alyson Klein break down, letting states determine how federal money is spent on testing.

Secretary Duncan and Washington Senator Patty Murray are countering that states must continue to test every kid in grades three through eight and once in high school to, in Murray’s words, “allow parents, civil rights groups and policymakers the ability to see how students are doing.” Their views are backed by civil rights advocates, who, as The Washington Post reported, maintain that the federal government must continue to require states to perform annual assessments in reading and math.

What’s so unfortunate about either of these views is that neither would directly address the matter at hand.

Policies the Republicans are advancing would let states, on the one hand, continue current practices or potentially create new assessments that have nothing to do with the original intent of the Elementary and Secondary Act, which NCLB renamed, which was to enforce on states their responsibilities to provide equitable education.

Meanwhile, what Democratic leaders and their civil rights supporters insist on is a policy that has done nothing to advance ESEA’s original intent either. As Valerie Strauss explains at The Washington Post:

We have had 13 years of federally mandated annual testing, and achievement gaps are still gaping. As education historian and activist Diane Ravitch noted on her blog, tests don’t help close achievement gaps; they only measure them. What standardized tests measure accurately is family income; look at SAT and other scores to see how closely they are linked to wealth and poverty. Standardized tests benefit students from privileged families, not children from low-income and minority families or children with disabilities.

In other words, while the arguments on both sides continue to vie back and forth over issues of how man tests should be given and how frequently, what’s completely lost in the debate is the more important issue of how tests are used.

Political strategist and education policy critic Jason Stanford nut-shelled it on his personal blog, stating, “Let’s assume that standardized tests are effective diagnostic tools. Let’s assume that the test scores we’ve been getting since No Child Left Behind and now with Common Core are producing useful, actionable information … What do we do with that? What is the point of this data? … Remember, the thermometer doesn’t cook the meat.”

As Rutgers University professor Bruce Baker writes on his personal blog, School Finance 101, “Missed in most of the conversation are the valid, relevant uses of student assessments, and the different uses, and approaches to using testing, measurement, large and small-scale assessment in our schooling system.”

As Baker explains, if we’re going to use tests for diagnostic & instructional purposes, then the current format of standardized exams being given periodically is horrible. If we’re going to use tests for system monitoring, then we should be using a “sampling method” rather than testing every student, and we should understand the results do not provide actionable data. The question of whether testing is a means for achieving more equitable outcomes in education all “depends on how that testing is used.”

Tests do uncover disparities in our education system, as the National Assessment of Education Progress has revealed for many years long before NCLB. Gerwerz, again, at Education Week, notes about NAEP, “When I look at it, I see the absence of nearly every single trigger point in today’s testing debates. Every kid required to sit for hours and hours of tests? Nope. Here we have only two hours of testing, given to a sample of the school’s students. Weeks of test prep? Nope. Students tied in knots over potentially bad test scores? Nope.”

Further, as Baker concludes in a subsequent post, if the federal government really wanted to do something about inequities in our education system, it would develop policies that gave states more incentive to correct what’s really causing inequities: the ways “in which our schools are organized and segregated.”

Why isn’t anyone talking about this? Because the discussion over testing, at least how it’s being carried out in Washington, isn’t really about education. It’s about power politics. Seen in this frame, it’s really hard to believe the Democrats are going to win.

As a really helpful retrospective on the politics of NCLB revision by Education Week’s Alyson Klein explains, the policy trend over the years has been heading “further and further away from the idea of a strong federal role in accountability that was at the center of the original No Child Left Behind Act.”

The reality is Democrats are caught on a slippery slope. As Republicans continue to present alternatives to the currently untenable situation posed by the current testocracy, they aren’t going to get footholds simply by saying the tests will get better (in fact, they won’t, as new, harder exams being rolled out this year will cause even more negative consequences.)

Anyone who has been paying attention saw this coming a long time ago. When Democrats bowed toward the Beltway deity of bipartisanship and rationalized their support for Republican plans for education “accountability” by saying they were doing it for civil rights reasons – regardless of the lack of research or other evidence to support that rationale – they essentially took on a sure failure their opponents would eventually hang around their necks.

If Democrats want to gain any footing on the sloping ground they find themselves on, they need to move from talking about a conversation on testing that’s all about how many and how often to upping the stakes in an argument about the purpose.

Get updates in your inbox