President-elect Donald Trump has announced few specifics about his policy plans for the next four years, but he has repeatedly promised to “end” Common Core, an initiative sponsored by the National Governor’s Association to create consistent standards of learning across states. Trump’s complaints are part of a larger national conversation about standards and standardized testing in public schools, one that spans partisan divide; while campaigning in New York, Bill Clinton said that Hillary Clinton "thinks the federal government requires too many tests for U.S. schoolchildren." Both Trump and the Clintons fail to acknowledge the real importance of standardized testing: it provides valuable statistics to ensure that traditionally underserved populations, like impoverished and minority students, receive quality educations.
More than a decade ago, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, or NCLB, into law, a bipartisan effort to bring accountability to schools and close the achievement gap between various student populations. NCLB required all states to adopt standards and create tests to measure how well each state was teaching its own standards. Since then, 42 states have chosen to join the Common Core State Standards Initiative. In 2015, President Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, into law, which replaced NCLB but kept the testing requirement for states.
Partly as a response to Common Core and ESSA, a growing number of parents are pushing back against the standardized-testing system. In Virginia, more parents have begun to opt out of standardized tests, up from 681 in the 2013-14 school year to more than 2,000 in the 2014-15 year. And the “opt-out” movement isn’t only in Virginia — similar movements in New York, New Jersey and Florida have all gained momentum in the last several years. While a common argument among those opposed to standardized tests is that the United States pushes too many tests on students, the data suggests otherwise: According to data collected through the Program for International Student Assessment, a survey given to 15-year-olds around the world, most nations give their students more tests than the United States does.
Teachers and teachers unions, too, have been consistent and vocal critics of standardized testing, especially when tied to teacher evaluations. Arne Duncan, U.S. Secretary of Education from 2009 to 2016, noted teachers’ anxiety about testing in 2015, saying, “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”
While standardized testing can be costly, stressful and time-consuming, standardized tests also generate invaluable information about the quality of our nation’s schools. Standardized tests allow policymakers to identify which reform efforts are working — and for whom.
The Standards of Learning, or SOL, results in Virginia show that while 86 percent of white students and 91 percent of Asian students passed the Virginia mathematics SOL test in 2016, only 67 percent of black students, 69 percent of economically disadvantaged students and 72 percent of Hispanic students did. In response to these obvious achievement gaps, the Virginia Board of Education president has promised that narrowing and closing these gaps will be the board’s top priority. Statistics like these allow states to identify which groups are underserved by the public education system and work to counteract whatever outside factors drive their scores below their peer groups.
Underserved groups are often clustered in particular schools or districts. This is true in Virginia, where public schools have become increasingly segregated in the last 10 years, according to a study by the Commonwealth Institute. In 2003, 82 schools were isolated by race and poverty; in 2013, that number has grown to 136. In an opinion piece for US News, National Alliance for Public Charter Schools President Nina Rees notes that white parents are more likely to support opting out of standardized tests than black or Hispanic parents. White parents were also more likely to say that there is too much emphasis on standardized tests. Rees hypothesizes that “black and Hispanic families are often stuck in districts with under-performing schools. Rather than accepting assurances from teachers, principals and local officials that things are getting better, they want to see the proof.” Standardized tests allow state governments to recognize these underperforming areas and reallocate resources to aid struggling schools.
During conversations leading up to the creation and passage the Every Student Succeeds Act, Obama’s replacement for Bush’s NCLB, several civil rights groups, including the NAACP, the National Urban League and the League of United Latin American Citizens, pressed policymakers to keep the requirement for standardized tests. Daria Hall, interim vice president for government affairs and communications at Education Trust, an organization dedicated to improving education for disadvantaged students, argues, "Since we have had federal requirements for annual testing, full public reporting and for serious accountability for the results of every group of children...we have seen gains in achievement, particularly for poor kids and kids of color."
Despite criticism from some parents and unions, standardized tests are critical tools in the effort to improve the quality of public education for all kids, regardless of race or economic class. Parents and students deserve to know how well their schools, districts and governments are serving them. Until the achievement gaps based in race and class of students close, standardized tests are necessary to hold the public education system accountable to all those students it serves.
Jordan Arnold is an Opinion columnist for the Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: This article previously incorrectly referred to Daria Hall, interim vice president for government affairs and communications, as "Diane Hall." It also referred to her title as "president of Education Trust."