The Kids Most Definitely Are Not All Right

On the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), or “nation’s report card,” test scores in both reading and math declined for 13-year-old students, the first drop registered in 50 years. The test showed that the decline was concentrated among the lowest performing students. Peggy Carr, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, who has been working with these data for 28 years, was shocked to see the decline. “I had to ask the question again of my staff. Are you sure?’ I asked them to go back and check,” she said.

It’s important to note that this test was given in early 2020, right before the pandemic-related shutdowns in the spring. At that point, then Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos granted a blanket, one-year “accountability waiver.” But in February 2021, with the Biden Administration in place, new Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said he’d “require states to administer the federally mandated tests in the spring, with an asterisk: They had the option of giving shorter, remote, or delayed versions.”

Bad idea. Per researcher Dan Goldhaber, “Using different versions of tests makes the results less comparable across different years and school districts.” And shorter tests produce less “actionable” information about individual student achievement in the short term. Nevertheless, the trend to disparage, eviscerate and ultimately do away with standardized tests is all the rage these days.

It’s also happening on the college level. Brandon McCoy, education policy expert at the Manhattan Institute, reports that the standardized test “has slowly lost its pride of place in college admissions over the past decade. By 2019, the number of schools going test-optional had risen to 1,050. The pandemic has catalyzed this trend, with at least 1,400 colleges in 2021 making the move to test-optional. College systems around the country are now permanently eliminating the requirement for the SAT and ACT; the University of California system is doing away with the tests altogether.”

Of course, the education establishmentarians will do anything to discredit low test scores because it makes them look bad. In fact, the teachers unions are actively working to eliminate any kind of standardized assessments because they know that if they don’t, public fury—especially from parents—could lead to reforms that could hurt the unions’ bottom line. The unions invoke terms like “test and punish” and “high-stakes testing” to put a bad spin on the assessments. But this is like a fat person blaming the bathroom scale for his obesity. A good test is diagnostic, explains where things are amiss, and may show ways to make improvements. No matter, the unions don’t care. And these days they have a new weapon—tests are racist, they say. For example, the Massachusetts Teachers Association is speaking out against the state’s standardized test, insisting that it has “allowed white supremacy to flourish in public schools.” The teachers union is endorsing a bill that would eliminate getting a passing score on the test as a graduation requirement in the state.

In Canada, Teri Mooring, president of the British Columbia Teachers’ Federation, quipped that standardized testing is “hurtful” and blamed a “right-wing think tank” for misusing results to “inappropriately rank B.C. schools,” which contributes to “entrenching both real and perceived inequities.”

The National Education Association also makes the absolutely baseless claim that testing children is racist. “From grade school to college, students of color have suffered from the effects of biased testing.” The union goes on to say, “Since their inception a century ago, standardized tests have been instruments of racism and a biased system,” and that “students of color, particularly those from low-income families, have suffered the most from high-stakes testing in U.S. public schools.”

Instead, NEA wants to promote “authentic assessments that reflect the broad range of students’ learning and skills, including creativity, leadership, critical thinking, and collaboration.” In other words, they want the tests to use highly subjective assessments, which the union will have a heavy hand in controlling.

The dismal results of the prior NAEP, administered in 2019, clarify why the unions’ are so antagonistic to standardized testing. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, “Of the 27 U.S. urban school districts that reported their results for 2019—from Boston and Chicago to Fort Worth, Texas, and Los Angeles—not a single one can say a majority of the black eighth graders in their care are proficient in either math or reading. It isn’t even close. In a number of these school districts, proficiency rates for black eighth graders are down in the single digits (see Detroit’s 4% for math and 5% for reading, or Milwaukee’s 5% for math and 7% for reading). Most are in the low teens.”

All the above are big city, government-run, well-funded school districts with powerful teachers unions. So, if “structural racism” indeed exists, I know the direction in which the finger-pointing should go.

About Larry Sand

Larry Sand, a former classroom teacher, is the president of the non-profit California Teachers Empowerment Network—a nonpartisan, non-political group dedicated to providing teachers and the general public with reliable and balanced information about professional affiliations and positions on educational issues. The views presented here are strictly his own.

Photo: Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

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