Enigma of high-stakes testing, by Ashley Clerge

9/7/2023, 6 p.m.
Hello again, folks. Let us continue to go down the rabbit hole of understanding standardized testing and why it has ...

Hello again, folks. Let us continue to go down the rabbit hole of understanding standardized testing and why it has become the cornerstone of the American education system.

In the labyrinthine corridors of American education, one metric has loomed large and cast its shadow over countless schools and students: testing. The ubiquity of standardized tests in modern education raises a fundamental question — why has testing become

the yardstick by which we measure the worth of our schools? To understand this, we must embark on a journey through history, navigating the twists and turns of education policy, where decisions made decades ago continue to shape the landscape today.

The origins of our testing fixation can be traced back to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), a landmark legislation aimed at enhancing educational standards and accountability. One of the central pillars of the ESEA was Title I, which sought to address the educational disparities between children from low-income backgrounds attending urban or rural schools and their middle- class peers in suburban schools. Initially designed to close the achievement gap, Title I laid the foundation for the future evolution of testing in education.

In the ensuing years, the focus shifted from financial regulations to student achievement, culminating in the Hawkins-Stafford Elementary and Secondary School Improvement Act of 1988. This pivotal moment refocused Title I on school improvement and excellence programs, setting the stage for high-stakes testing. Under this new regime, schools that received funding were held accountable for their student’s performance on standardized tests. The stakes were high, and schools that failed to meet the required standards faced the threat of closure.

As time went on, the Improving America’s Schools Act of 1994 (IASA) brought further changes to Title I, aligning it with the goal of improving instruction for all students. The IASA introduced math and reading/language arts standards to assess student progress and provide accountability. Thus, the seeds of high-stakes testing were sown even deeper into the fabric of our education system.

The reauthorization of Title I in 1994 saw the federal government urging schools to commit to continuous progress in improving student outcomes. Schools had to define annual outcomes and service improvement targets and report their progress to maintain funding. This accountability structure, though well-intentioned, raised significant concerns.

One of the most pressing issues was the disproportionately negative impact of high-stakes testing on the highest-poverty schools. These schools faced extraordinary challenges, yet they were held to the same standards

as their better-resourced counterparts. Despite efforts to support them with grants and technical assistance, many struggled to meet the mandated targets.

To add to the complexity, the push for charter schools further muddied the waters. The No Child Left Behind Act, enacted in 2002, offered incentives for struggling schools to be converted into charter schools if they couldn’t meet performance targets. This raised eyebrows and ignited a debate about the true purpose behind these policies.

The heart of the matter lies in the question of why we entrusted standardized testing, a deeply flawed metric, to determine the fate of schools and students. We need to challenge the notion that closing schools or turning them into charters is the solution to educational inequity. It is imperative to consider the broader structural and systemic issues that underpin the disparities in educational outcomes.

High-stakes testing, when used as the sole arbiter of school success, narrows the focus of education to mere test preparation, stifling creativity, critical thinking, and genuine learning. It narrows the scope of what it means to be educated and undermines the holistic development of our children.

We must strive for a system that recognizes the richness and diversity of human potential, that empowers teachers to teach, and that values each child as an individual on their unique educational journey.

The writer is a humanities teacher for Boston Public Schools and a 2023 International Literacy Association 30 Under 30 Literacy Champion.