What’s It Going to Take for Us to Dump the Tests?

How testing culture makes us dumber and less democratic

This post is also cross posted on Teachers Going Gradeless website.

As schools reconvened on Thursday, January 7, many teachers again faced the task of helping students make sense of another traumatizing event. The day before, a mob of pro-Trump extremists descended on our nation’s capitol seeking to overturn the election and exact retribution on their political enemies. Many teachers took to Twitter to urge on and equip one another — both for the short term of another “day after” and the long term soul-searching spurred by the realization: most of these people once sat in public school classrooms.

How could we account for the sheer lack of civility, empathy, and critical thinking that culminated in this event? As an educator, I couldn’t help but take that question to heart, and I didn’t like the answers.

Far beyond any messages we give to these kids on these seemingly more frequent ‘days after,’ they know what matters — namely, how will they measure up on tests, final grades, GPA, and class rank?

Ultimately, it’s because we don’t value those things in schools. We value what can be measured. And as gradeless teachers have continually echoed, “What can be measured may be the least significant results of learning” (McNeil 1986). Not only that, these high-stakes assessments actively crowd out what we say matters more. Far beyond any messages we give to these kids on these seemingly more frequent “days after,” they know what matters — namely, how will they measure up on tests, final grades, GPA, and class rank?

Much has been made of the racism baked into our most “prestigious” exams. How they were created by people who embraced eugenics, sterilization, and the pseudoscience of psychological measurement; how they continue to test fundamentally white and middle class knowledge; how affluent students procure even greater advantages through tutors, high-priced test prep, and inequitable access to special accommodations. Add to this the fact that tests don’t even do what they purport to do, namely, predict college success or on-time graduation.

Ibram X. Kendi writes, “Standardized tests have become the most effective racist weapon ever devised to objectively degrade Black minds and legally exclude their bodies.”

Given their racist origins and outcomes, these tests belong on the same scrap as Confederate statues. The tired reformist argument that, without accountability schemes, we won’t confront the inequities and stratification of society is misplaced. As Paul Thomas observes, “Testing does not provide data for addressing an equity/opportunity gap. Rather, testing has created achievement gaps, labeling those gaps and marginalizing those below the codified level of standard.”

Of course, we know that exams — both internal and external — are not the only source of stress for students. The subtlest gradations in our gradebooks communicate fixed messages to students about their abilities. This well-documented effect is only amplified by the skyrocketing price of college. For all our talk about personalization, choice, and autonomy, student stories are whittled down to a constellation of numbers that matter. Not surprisingly, this reductive focus becomes even more “laser like” in schools that have the deck most stacked against them, leading to schools where test prep has become the curriculum.

Perhaps the biggest problem is the way this notion of accountability makes it hard to be responsive — responsive on “days after” because we have to move on; responsive to student needs for experiential, hands-on learning because schedules are eaten up by remedial programs or AP classes; and culturally responsive because tests enshrine white history, perspectives, and ways of knowing.

As I have argued elsewhere, these elements belie even deeper connections to the white supremacy so flagrantly on display on January 6. Swap out the content to be more inclusive and diverse; develop curriculum focused on empathy, civic discourse, media literacy, and critical thinking. But if you change nothing about the underlying graded and tested system, you end up with an education that is fundamentally anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, and white supremacist.

A personal anecdote

The characteristics of white supremacy (Jones & Okun 2001) — perfectionism, objectivity, a sense of urgency, and others — factor heavily into grading and testing culture, and are damaging to all of us. Like students, teachers have been increasingly subject to accountability practices that have, as Jessica Holloway (2020) puts it, “steadily weakened teacher expertise, authority, and professionalism by constraining the capacity for teachers to exercise professional discretion.”

God forbid you are one of those teachers who is “sidetracked” by events like January 6. One of my best friends, a social studies teacher in my district, was one of those teachers — especially when it came to conversations about current events. He was one of those teachers who kids come back to visit years later.

The alternative school where my friend and I worked served teen parents, many who came to us woefully deficient in credits. Our school came alongside them with daycare for their children, parenting classes, small class sizes, monthly community events, and innovative ways to recover credit without sacrificing a rich curriculum. At graduation, anyone who wanted could give a graduation speech, and students often included a word of thanks to one or more teachers.

My friend Russ and I out with my son and a former student at Nancy Whiskey’s in Detroit.

Without fail, my friend was mentioned more than anyone else.

Although there were other contributing factors during the 2008 downturn, our alternative school was shut down due to poor test scores. My friend and I were transferred to the mainstream high school in the district. While I was able to adapt myself to the school’s pervasive achievement culture, my friend stayed the same. He let himself get sidetracked; he was always behind on “covering” the curriculum.

Once, in one of his sweetly absent-minded spells, my friend mistakenly left out the key for the final exam (we didn’t have those back at our old school). When he came back the key was gone. Most of his kids scored exactly a 92% that year; a few threw caution to the wind and scored a 100%.

Our principal made his life hell after that. He was hounded out of his job. He put on a good face and tried to go back to school in his 50s, but he was broken. He spiraled into a deep depression and died of heart failure a few years later. I won’t pretend there weren’t other reasons for his untimely demise, but a culture of grades and tests helped precipitate it.

He was one of those souls that are too good for this world. I miss him.

What’s it going to take?

Every day in schools I see a toxic double helix of two influences: on the one hand, frustration and anxiety around grades, tests, and GPA, and, on the other, a continual flight to the numbing comforts of social media. Is it too much of a stretch to suggest that this exact pairing lays the groundwork for a future January 6?

Students rates of mental illness, hospitalization, and suicide are increasing at alarming rates. Is it because of a righteous despair over the state of our nation? Possibly, particularly among students most vulnerable to its violence. But more often than not, it’s these twin worlds of make-believe, seemingly competing for attention with the bewildering events we see in the world. And, as with social media, the culture of grading and testing arguably produces its own shocking bursts of real-world harm.

We can’t keep doing this. We’ve got to give up our obsession with measurement. It’s destroying our kids, it’s destroying our teachers, it’s destroying our ability to deliberate, to think deeply, to participate in democratic society. The people in these industries don’t care about us. They only care about profit.

When the pandemic hit, the College Board blundered through with an ill-advised plan to carry on with AP exams despite enormous equity concerns. I and many other educators signed an open letter to the College Board, which had exactly no effect on these plans. Kids with unreliable WiFi took the exams in McDonald’s parking lots; thousands had their results denied. It was a bonafide fiasco. And yet, here we are again, powering through with standardized tests at the expense of equity and public health.

And the tests have only made us dumber. Facts and formulas, abstractions and algorithms, remembering and regurgitating. Synthesizing multiple sources and developing nuanced perspectives? Rarely, and never on the exam — not when it counts. And so, as with social media, we live in an increasingly virtual, corporatized world, with virtual anxieties and virtual successes and virtual failures — all around things that are and forever will be irrelevant to the world outside.

I guess it was good that the attack on the capitol occurred January 6, a good three weeks before finals. Throw in a quick Learning for Justice lesson on Thursday, then back to the grind Friday. (Maybe send a little extra work home over the weekend.)

Then two full weeks to cram for exams.

Teacher, learner, thinker. Exploring what’s possible in education.