Standardized testing amid COVID-19 pandemic will do kids and teachers more harm than good

The U.S. Department of Education has quietly released guidance that will require states to conduct standardized testing for this school year. The decision means that all states will have to administer standardized tests for millions of students this spring.

Some states such as Texas have already decided to invest millions of dollars in restarting standardized testing regardless of federal policy or public health concerns.Other states, such as New Jersey, planned on seeking a waiver from testing this year and instead invest more than $100 million to support struggling students and address mental health concerns. 

This type of disconnect is disappointing. The Biden administration’s decision fails to adequately consider the realities and inequities that students, teachers, parents and principals are confronting. A massive testing regime amid a pandemic is not necessary to identify struggling schools and students. 

Focus on repairing COVID-19 damage

States already have sufficient longitudinal data to forecast which districts, schools and students are struggling and will be disproportionately affected by the pandemic. In collaboration with districts, states can identify and support schools and students in need. The nation’s schools do not need standardized testing to distract from the investments that promote equity and alleviate the harmful effects of the pandemic.  

The Education Department does provide states with the opportunity to give shorter, remote or delayed test versions based on the impact the pandemic is having on schools, but this is not enough. It does not help the crisis at hand. The decision is not based on research or a sound understanding of how assessment, accountability and reporting are relevant to improving student outcomes.  

School on Feb. 25, 2021, in New York City. (Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

One of the first claims made by the department is that “state assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity.”

This statement ignores documented negative consequences of high-stakes testing that disproportionately affect low-income students of color. Negative consequences include the loss of valuable opportunities to learn due to testing preparation, the narrowing of curriculum to focus on tested standards, and the stigmatization of students and schools as failing or in need of intervention based on faulty interpretations of what test scores actually mean. 

The notion that testing during the pandemic is important for the advancement of educational equity is also misleading. Many families might believe that testing data can help teachers improve or adapt instruction, but state assessments and their proficiency ratings do little to inform teachers about what each individual student needs moving forward. In fact, researchers have failed to demonstrate that 20 years of high-stakes testing and accountability have improved student achievement or narrowed achievement gaps.

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Stress and anxiety caused by testing procedures are real problems for students, but less known is the effect on pandemic-fatigued teachers, superintendents and principals. Many low-income families in particular are confronted with significant challenges as a result of the pandemic. These include absences due to sickness, the loss of loved ones, housing insecurity, and a sense of anxiety and shame in taking a test that adults emphasize so much without adequate time and support.  

Not what teachers or principals need

Principals and teachers are emotionally taxed by exams in normal years. During the pandemic, principals and teachers are reporting higher levels of burnout that testing probably will exacerbate due to the stress of developing and implementing a weeklong period of testing with newly developed procedures and security protocols. This is not what our teachers and principals need.  

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Rather than more testing, the Biden administration must provide more oversight and significant investment so states can support all students, particularly those who have fallen furthest behind. This includes not requiring testing this year, and a testing waiver granted to states that feel unable to safely test students.

Instead, the administration should shift resources to safely and equitably reopen schools and develop and invest in programs that will address learning loss for the nation’s most vulnerable students.  

The reality is many state governments and community schools are not well prepared to ensure that testing could be safely conducted. Testing now will provide flawed and inaccurate data that will be of little use to teachers and administrators while wasting precious time and resources. 

David DeMatthews is an associate professor of educational leadership and policy in the College of Education at The University of Texas at Austin. Follow him on Twitter: @DrDeMatt

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