On Dec. 14, 2019, I asked President Joe Biden a question about standardized testing. Seeking the Democratic nomination, he had joined other presidential candidates at a Public Education Forum hosted by a collective of organizations including the Schott Foundation, Network for Public Education, and Journey for Justice Alliance. It was livestreamed and moderated by MSNBC.
I had all day to prepare and frame my question — Biden was last in the lineup. Given the widespread havoc that standardized testing has wreaked, I had to cover a lot of ground. I wanted to demonstrate the negative impact of standardized testing on teacher autonomy and early childhood education. I needed to emphasize the racist history of standardized testing to remind everyone how we got to this point.
“If you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools?” I asked. “Yes,” said Biden. He told me that I was preaching to the choir and assured me that he was well-informed about the overreliance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and students. He agreed that we need to give teachers the power to determine the curriculum and build children’s confidence.
“When testing is the measure of whether or not the student is successful . . . [teaching] to a standardized test makes no sense,” he said. The question went viral, with many educators hopeful that this dark cloud would finally evaporate under a Biden presidency. At the time, I didn’t believe him, and though I voted for him, I had no faith that he would keep his promise to me and other teachers.
I knew that Democrats were too deeply aligned with neoliberal education reform policies to end standardized testing. Some thought otherwise, hoping for a positive influence from Dr. Jill Biden, a teacher. Democratic presidents may publicly speak out against such assessments while filling their administration with people who support them. I remembered that President Barack Obama also had delivered a critique of testing and then ramped it up with his Race to the Top program. Biden could have selected Dr. Leslie Fenwick as his Secretary of Education with a proven track record against standardized testing. Instead, he chose a moderate, unknown candidate, Dr. Miguel Cardona.
I was right.
On Feb. 22nd, Chalkbeat reported that the Biden administration had announced that “States must administer federally required standardized testing this year.” While schools will not be held accountable for scores and can administer the test online and shorten it, states will not receive an exemption through federal waivers.
Of course, when Biden made his promise to me, we had no idea that COVID-19 would upend public education as we know it, plunging teachers, students, and families into the world of remote teaching and learning. Now would be the perfect time for Biden to make good on his promise. Last year’s tests were canceled. As the pandemic rages on and districts struggle to move from remote to hybrid and fully in-person, why should Biden insist on keeping the standardized tests he claimed made no sense in a pre-COVID world?
Fortunately, parents and students have an excellent tool at their disposal. They can opt out.
I cannot imagine a more opportune time for parents to refuse to have their children participate in a standardized test. The last thing our children need is the added pressure of a test that won’t count, but they are still required to take. Our focus should be on helping children build the resilience they need, not just to survive the trauma from this pandemic but also to thrive in this new education landscape. Jesse Hagopian passionately reminds us in the Progressive:
While corporate education reformers prattle on about a need for more high-stakes testing to evaluate “learning loss,” what students truly require is the redirection of the billions of dollars wasted on the testing-industrial complex toward supporting educators and students: to gain access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations, as well as psychologists, nurses, social workers, trauma counselors, after-school programs, restorative justice coordinators, and more.
Opting out of standardized testing is a parent’s choice and right, despite administrators’ push back. Pre-COVID-19, some schools tried to force children to sit and stare for hours while their classmates took the exam. Now that testing has gone virtual, some parents had to give up their right to opt out when they signed up for online schooling. They can make you log on to the testing platform, but no one can force your child to answer the questions.
I am not alone in my calls for widespread opt out. On Thursday, Feb. 25, the recently resigned Chancellor of New York City Schools, Richard Carranza, called for parents to refuse the tests. NYC Opt Out and IntegrateNYC hosted a town hall to strategize opting out of spring testing.
Opting out this year and every year will not hurt schools, but it will hurt the testing corporations, desperate to prove that these assessments can survive in virtual schooling and protect their bottom line. Two years in a row without standardized testing would clear the way to finally dismantle this racist practice. The time has come to banish this obsolete relic of a painful past.
For more information on the movement, visit unitedoptoutnational.org.
Full Text of My Question:
Good afternoon. My name is Denisha Jones, and I am the director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. I’m also representing the Network for Public Education Action, Defending the Early Years, the Badass Teachers Association, and the National Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action Steering Committee.
Teaching has changed drastically over the last 10–20 years. Instead of being allowed to use their expertise to develop engaging curriculum that is culturally responsive, teachers are often forced to use a scripted curriculum that rushes children through without giving them enough time to really understand the material. Many teachers feel more like a test prep tutor than a [teacher] of children and they’re concerned that both teachers and students are heavily evaluated by standardized testing. Beginning in kindergarten, young children are losing time for play and discovery and instead forced into developmentally inappropriate academic instruction in an effort to get them prepared for tests. Although formal testing does not begin until 3rd grade, younger students are often bombarded with practice tests that narrow the curriculum and often leave them hating school.
Given that standardized testing is rooted in a history of racism and eugenics, if you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized testing in public schools?
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