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Communities Hardest Hit by COVID Are Also Harmed Most by Standardized Testing

Standardized testing under pandemic conditions will only magnify the inequities the tests were designed to perpetuate.

Standardized testing under pandemic conditions will only magnify the inequities the tests were designed to perpetuate.

Part of the Series

On behalf of our members, families and communities, we urge Education Secretary Miguel Cardona to free students nationwide from the federal demand for standardized testing for the remainder of this school year. Our kids and communities deserve a chance at real recovery from the devastation of a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.

While we appreciate the option to delay or shorten the tests, those choices will be insufficient for the hardest-hit communities and threaten to continue causing real harm.

Anyone who says they want to help children recover from this pandemic must first stop hurting them now. We know that, at best, punitive standardized tests have no impact on student learning. At worst, they do damage to children’s motivation and opportunity to learn. These tests saddle students with labels, haunt them with stereotypes, make school dull and disengaging, put targets on kids’ backs for disinvestment, and create displacement when their schools are ultimately closed because charter operators use student academic performance or behavior to push students out in order to make their own academic portfolio look more attractive to school boards. Inflicting tests on students during a pandemic will only magnify the inequities these tests were designed to reflect, since eugenicists first engineered them to prove racial inferiority.

Writing over 80 years ago, NAACP co-founder and public intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois realized that standardized tests were designed to perpetuate inequity rather than to correct it. He observed that the exam systems that gave rise to today’s bubble tests “were quickly adjusted so as to put black folk absolutely beyond the possibility of civilization.” We cannot act as if these tests are not grounded in their original purpose and continue to use a metric that is rooted in racism and the illusion of white supremacy.

Today, we know that the communities hit hardest by the pandemic, racism and economic distress are the same ones harmed most by standardized testing. Standardized testing has been weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Low test scores have been used to deem schools “failing” and the rationale for their closure. For instance, although Black students only make up 36 percent of Chicago Public Schools, Black schools are 88 percent of the schools that have been closed or totally re-staffed. In the same city during the COVID pandemic, although Black people make up about 30 percent of the city’s population, they accounted for 70 percent of the COVID deaths. These students have already shouldered more than their share of grief, isolation, digital deprivation, interrupted learning, and fear for themselves and their families. Adding these tests would be cruel and futile.

No educator needs to subject children to a stress-inducing bubble test to identify which students are hurting and in need of our support. In fact, we know that these tests do best at predicting a student’s economic status — which is knowledge we already have! Anyone arguing that bubble tests are needed to allocate learning resources fairly is ignoring the reality of the decades since the federal government started requiring them. In fact, test scores have been used to justify taking away learning opportunities in art, music and enrichment, replacing experienced teachers with untrained temporary ones, expanding charters to compete and drain already underfunded schools, and to disinvest in and close those underfunded schools altogether.

The Chicago charter school chain Noble Network of Charter Schools just apologized publicly for its racist, harmful practices, which included fining students, “counseling students out” to transfer them to other schools in order to improve the company’s numbers, and denying entry to students with special needs. New York’s Success Academy just agreed to pay $2.4 million to five families of students with special needs for pushing them out with daily harassment calls to parents, constant removals from classrooms, and threats to call police and family services. It’s no accident that many believe those practices — and those of most corporate charters — were driven by the need to produce high test scores. An apology is empty and a payout is not systemic change; it’s time to do what is right.

Secretary Cardona must call off these tests and bar states from continuing to use them to punish struggling students and communities. As fellow educators — such as principal-turned-Congressman Jamaal Bowman — note, the results will come too late and be too unreliable to help teachers help kids. Instead, it will only fatten the pockets of testing companies and heap misery on already traumatized students and their educators. As Cardona admitted during his confirmation hearing, it makes no sense to have students return to buildings just to test. It makes less sense for schools to enforce the return of laptops and tablets that were lent out during remote learning, waste precious class time, invade families’ privacy and purchase expensive software to administer tests whose scores will be useless at best. Their irrelevance will only be compounded when tens of thousands of parents opt their children out, protecting them from physical risk and educational malpractice.

The return to in-person learning offers us a chance to rethink how education works; to finally get serious about equity in public education. We have an opportunity to stop the practices that have mired the U.S. in the middle of the pack in education across the globe. Extending the ban on standardized testing lowers the burdens facing schools struggling to adapt to a host of new pandemic-related challenges. It frees up time, money and energy for educators and communities to devise real solutions to assess and meet students’ needs. It recognizes the reality of what families are facing and protects them from further unnecessary hardship and humiliation. But each day these tests hang over students’ heads, the further they move away from genuine healing and learning.

As mentioned earlier, standardized testing does not accurately measure student knowledge. In his 1923 book, A Study of American Intelligence, psychologist and eugenicist Carl Brigham wrote that African Americans were on the low end of the racial, ethnic and/or cultural spectrum. Testing, he believed, showed the superiority of “the Nordic race group” and warned of the “promiscuous intermingling” of new immigrants in the American gene pool.

The branches of a tree cannot distinguish themselves from its roots. COVID resources should be spent on high quality early childhood education, reducing the counselor-to-student ratio in our schools, service-learning projects that help students contribute to the development of their community and expanding the evidence-based model of community schools — not standardized tests.

Ending these tests and their consequences — both intentional and unintended — is the fair, humane and visionary decision that will guide us toward a just education recovery.

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