Transcription of the episode “Leaving students behind: The tyranny of testing”

[00:00:15] Jon M: Hi. I’m Jon Moscow. 

[00:00:17] Amy H-L: I’m Amy Halpern-Laff. Welcome to Ethical Schools. Our guest today is Bob Schaeffer, Executive Director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing or FairTest. FairTest advances quality education and equal opportunity by promoting fair, open, valid, and educationally beneficial evaluations of students, teachers and schools. Welcome, Bob!

[00:00:43] Bob S: Thanks for having us. Thank you. 

[00:00:46] Jon M: What are FairTest’s main objectives? 

[00:00:49] Bob S: FairTest is a 35 year old organization set up by leaders of national civil rights, education reform, student activist, and feminist organizations to serve as the nation’s testing reform watchdog to ensure that assessments that are used to evaluate students and teachers and other workers are, as our name implies, fair, open, and valid. So we work to eliminate unfair barriers to access and equal opportunity created by standardized tests and to replace these unfair barriers with better forms of assessment. 

[00:01:31] Amy H-L: Bob, where have you seen the most success?

[00:01:34] Bob S: Well, the most success has come in higher education, where something FairTest has advocated for nearly three decades, test optional admissions, in which colleges make admissions decisions without regard to ACT and SAT scores at the undergraduate level, and without regard to the GRE or GMAT at the graduate school. Currently, more than 1700 four year colleges, about three quarters of all those higher education institutions, are now test optional for the class of 2022. Many graduate programs are also GRE optional as well. And we’re seeing progress in moving medical schools and law schools toward reconsidering the value of tests.

[00:02:22] Jon M: How has the use of standardized testing changed in college admissions, based on what you what you were just saying? What are test optional or colleges that don’t ask for the tests at all? What are they doing?

[00:02:34] Bob S: Great question. Well, first of all, there have been test optional colleges since before there was a FairTest. Bowdoin College, a highly selective national liberal arts college in Maine, dropped its testing requirements in 1969. So they’ve been test optional for nearly 52 years. And the way they make admissions decisions about test score non submitters has been a model for the rest of the country.

What they do is they look at the things that really matter, an applicant’s academic record, her high school grades, class rank if that’s available, particularly the rigor of the courses that she has taken. But in addition to that, extracurricular activities, community service, leadership, obstacles overcome, and special talents. And using all those factors, which present a much richer picture of an applicant than how well he fills in bubbles on a Saturday morning for three hours, they can make high quality, fair, and accurate decisions about admitting students.

[00:03:40] Jon M: Does the move away from standardized tests in college admissions affect the battle over affirmative action?

[00:03:47] Bob S: Well, we think that it does very much. The opponents of affirmative action, and we’ve filed amicus briefs in a couple of the cases that have ended up in the U S Supreme Court, opponents say that test scores should be the only measure of merit and that making decisions based on a strict ranking of test scores is the only fair way to go. And that’s really insane. It would, if nothing else, would create a war of people going to test prep centers to try and boost their scores to get in. But academic success, as colleges know, is much more than how well you do multiple choice problems in a standardized testing format. So test optional admissions is clearly a way around the affirmative action debate that has been proven repeatedly to enhance diversity without sacrificing educational quality.

So this year, for example, when many colleges… Take the case of the University of California system, which includes things like the University of California at Berkeley, UCLA, University of California, San Diego, world-class, highly selective institutions. All of them reported the peak of diversity in their admissions pools with no difference in the high school grade point averages of their admits. And now that they have a system which is actually called test blind, they will not, the UC schools will not, look at test scores even if applicants submit them.

[00:05:20] Amy H-L: Does using alternative measures for admissions cost more in terms of time and money?

[00:05:26] Bob S: It probably costs more at schools that were using test scores to do a preliminary sort of applicants of automatically denying or assuming that they would automatically deny those with low grades and test scores. So yes, it does require some more resources in a few places to hire additional readers and to train them to make accurate fit, holistic evaluations, but that’s a small price to pay for equity in the higher education process. You know, we’re talking about a couple additional people, readers in admissions office who open the doors to higher education by removing the unfair barriers of access that test scores present to historically underrepresented groups, including racial minorities, Native Americans, new Asian immigrants, first generation applicants, second language kids from second language families, and the like.

So when schools go test optional or test blind, they generally find that they get more applicants, they get better qualified applicants in terms of high school record and they get more diversity of all sorts. So it’s a win-win, both for kids and schools and society. 

[00:06:48] Jon M: How do schools that are going test blind adapt this to admission of foreign students? Is that a different process? 

[00:06:56] Bob S: It’s actually very difficult. It’s taken some some work to figure out how to better evaluate applications. There are firms that specialize in interpreting, as it were, the resumes and the credentials of kids who went through non-English speaking systems, but they have done so. And we’ve had for even pre-pandemic, places like the University of Chicago, a world class international institution, was test optional and they figured out how to do it. Again, it takes a little more planning and a little more work.

[00:07:33] Amy H-L: How is high stakes testing used in other countries?

[00:07:37] Bob S: Well, it really depends. And some places, historically, as in East Asia, it has been the be all and end all of college admissions. In China, for example, the gaokao, the national admissions test run by the government, determined who could go to college and which college you’d go to. And so a huge industry sprung up. The Chinese government is just cracking down on which students would leave their home village and go to Beijing, to Shanghai, to study for the gaokao for a year or more in order to get a high score and have a chance to go to the colleges that would make it more likely that they get high paying jobs.

Same is true, has been true in different format in places like Japan and South Korea. Those countries are moving away from test based systems because they see that it narrows the pool of talent to those who can afford test prep, first of all, and secondly, to those whose skills are best meshed with the narrow range of abilities that can be tested in a multiple choice exam.

[00:08:47] Jon M: Have there been changes in high stakes testing, standardized testing in K through 12 education? 

[00:08:53] Bob S: Yes. There’ve been many changes. And then the disruptions of COVID that caused further changes. Over the last decade, we’ve been happy to see and led the movement for the elimination of high school graduation rate tests or exit exams. About half the states in the nineties had these kinds of tests. They ended up, the burden of those tests falls most heavily on low-income and minority kids. And we left kids out on the street without high school diplomas, even though they completed a high school curriculum, did satisfactory work in their classes, but could not, for whatever reason, pass those tests and were thus denied diplomas.

Even before COVID, about half of the states that required graduation tests had repealed them. Some, like California and Nevada and Georgia, actually went back and awarded diplomas retroactively to the young adults who had been denied these credentials solely because of test scores. And again, that pool was largely low income and minority. And with the disruption of COVID, the pandemic, in the spring of 2020, there were no standardized tests given. And in schools across the country, the federal government under allowed states to suspend those tests. And in 2021, though tests were required to be given by the Biden administration, states were allowed to suspend consequences like grade promotion or graduation that had been historically attached to those test scores.

So one major issue for FairTest, in our assessment, we form allies, is making sure that these high stakes waivers or repeals continue for spring 2022 and beyond. 

[00:10:48] Amy H-L: Why is there so much resistance to eliminating or drastically reducing high stakes testing in elementary and secondary schools? 

[00:10:57] Bob S: Well, in part it’s inertia, it’s the way things have been done and teachers, school, board members, and others are used to it. But beyond that, it’s a political and ideological question. A major reason for the difference in assessment reform successes in higher ed compared to K-12, I think, is because decisions in higher ed are, for the most part, made by admissions experts and school leaders based on data and mission. In K-12, they’re based on politics and ideology. And there are a set of people, particularly on the political right, who believe that the test scores are the only objective way to make evaluations. And the fact that they reinforce existing disparities is just happenstance. In addition, there’s a political reality that many leaders of national civil rights groups, particularly those based inside the DC Beltway, are part of a bipartisan deal that put standardized testing at the center of public education going as far back as when Ted Kennedy joined with George Bush to impose No Child Left Behind in 2001. So those groups believe that standardized tests are necessary to ensure that teachers are actually delivering educational quality to their own kids.

Increasingly we’ve seen the grassroots components, local chapters and groups like the NAACP, breaking away from that and saying no, tests are hurting our kids, but the inside the Beltway bureaucracy still has been supportive. And that provides convenient political cover for groups that claim to be Democrat s and sort of tout the corporate line to continue testing. Others on both the Republican and Democratic side like testing because it’s a great tool to advance vouchers and charter schools and privatization. 

[00:13:05] Jon M: So you mentioned the NAACP. In addition to the forces on the acknowledged right, what are some of these organizations inside the Beltway that claim that they are focusing on fairness and equity and see tests as, as the way to do that?

[00:13:24] Bob S: I mean, there are a whole bunch of them and many of them have gained substantial funding from Bill Gates, the Waltons, who own Walmart, Eli Broad, and others who are believe that the way to improve education is raise the bar and yell jump higher and [unintelligible] the kids and teachers who don’t get over the bar.

Many of them are Democrats, not Republicans, but that’s, you know, that’s their ideological commitment. One of their key organizations is called Democrats for Education Reform. All the parts of that are lies, but you know, they push for it and there is a whole bunch of organizations they support like Education Trust. The national Parents Teachers Association received a multi-year grant from the Bill Gates Foundation that required them to advocate for Common Core standards and national tests. And other groups, like the National Urban League, which is an arm of the business community rather than a civil rights group, all push hard for that kind of an agenda. 

[00:14:27] Amy H-L: The National PTA changed its position on high stakes testing after getting a Gates Foundation grant. Would you expand on that? 

[00:14:35] Bob S: Well, I mean, that’s a statement of historical fact. Back in the nineties, the PTA was part of a broad alliance that opposed high stakes testing and argued that test scores should not be used to make life altering judgments about kids, teachers, schools, or districts. In recent years, although there’s some movement back, it appears, in recent years, they’ve been on the other side. And the grant from the Gates Foundation is a matter of historical record. As I read it, it specifically said that their work would need to include advocacy for national standards and tests. 

[00:15:17] Jon M: Some Black parents have historically advocated for high stakes testing because they’re afraid that their children’s teachers are biased and they want “an objective measure” of their child’s knowledge. What would you say to these parents?

[00:15:31] Bob S: Well, we understand their concerns. In many cases, their concerns are valid. There’s no evidence that the emphasis on standardized testing improves the situation. It doesn’t deal with teachers who may not be fair or competent, but it just creates this measure that has been used repeatedly to punish those schools that their kids attend. And in the worst cases, we’ve seen in many big cities with large minority populations, huge cheating scandals, worst was in Atlanta, in which teachers and administrators, in order to preserve their jobs, faked test scores, further hurting the kids they were serving. Where this concern comes from historically, is that one of the ways civil rights litigators, and FairTest has worked with many of them, like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. One of the ways they proved unfair, unequal access to education in financing and and segregation lawsuits is by focusing on the difference in test score outcomes. So the test scores became elevated as the measure of fairness. There are other measures which serve just as well, graduation rates, college going rates, et cetera, but they’ve helped cement test scores as the measure of racial equity.

[00:16:59] Jon M: Yeah. What would you advocate as an alternative to the current system of high stakes testing?

[00:17:06] Bob S: Well, FairTest has long supported performance-based assessments, which include things like portfolios, performances, exhibitions, collections of work over time and teacher judgment. I mean, we’re talking here about high school standardized tests. We’re not talking about opposing things like the weekly spelling test, which is used to give feedback to the student and teacher about whether certain material has been mastered. As colleges have found out, the best measure of student preparedness for college is how well they’ve done in high school, how well they’ve mastered their coursework. And so the actual activities that a teacher and student are involved in should be the central point for assessment. And there are models for how to do this around the country. In New York state, for example, the New York Performance Standards Consortium has gotten waivers from almost all of the required tests and uses a system of juries almost. It’s like a PhD, in many cases, to judge the work that did students do. And that work, that judgment is done by teacher s from the same school, educators from other institutions, parents, and community activists, to see that their schools are delivering the educational quality and equity that they deserve. Well, the Consortium schools are kind of a model for what we’d like to see.

[00:18:45] Amy H-L: Do you have concerns about teachers in other schools? First of all, they might be biased. 

[00:18:51] Bob S: There are definitely teachers who are biased. There are biased people in every profession and they need to be encouraged to work in places where that bias does not matter. The great promise of standardized testing, going back to No Child Left Behind and Ted Kennedy and Bush and so on, was that it was going to do two things. One, it was going to improve the overall quality of academic performance in American schools to bring us up to global standards. And the second was that it was going to close historic gaps between demographic groups in the United States. Well, we’ve had two decades of experience with that model and it is a total failure in terms of its own goals. The US has is still mired in the middle of, as it were, of international test scores, reasons to understand that. And most importantly, those performance gaps have not changed materially. In fact, the US made more progress towards closing academic gaps in the decade before No Child Left Behind than in the two decades since. And the reason was in the decade before No Child Left Behind, the United States made more progress in addressing childhood poverty. 

[00:20:09] Jon M: Is there any appropriate role for standardized testing? 

[00:20:13] Bob S: Sure. I mean, FairTest has no problem with things like the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which is a periodic sampling as a check-in to see how students do. The major problem is when you attach significant consequences to those test scores. I live in Florida, where test scores, at least in the pre COVID era, were used to determine promotion from grade three to grade four, high school graduation, school grades, teacher bonuses, voucher eligibility, and about another dozen things. So test scores became the sole point of arrival. And that distorts education. At worst, when scores are all that matters, some teachers get the scores they need by hook or by crook, and some cheat. Some narrow the curriculum tremendously to focus only on the things that are on the test. Others ignore what are called bubble kids, kids whose scores are farther away from the cut-off margin, because they’re unlikely to pass, in order to get their scores up. It’s a perversion of what education should be about. And, you know, again, it’s a proven failure in terms of its own promises.

What’s insane to me is that you find politicians who say it hasn’t worked, and the answer is we’re going to double down on failure. We’re going to raise the stakes. And Obama did this for a while with Race to the Top, which created even more incentives for states to focus crazily on test scores. Fortunately, after a couple of years, they saw that wasn’t working and backed away from overemphasizing test scores a bit. 

[00:21:57] Jon M: And a lot of the state agencies that regulate charter schools insist on standardized tests as the only measure of a school success. 

[00:22:07] Bob S: Yeah. In some states. In most states, state agencies don’t do much regulation of charter schools, but it’s the wild west. And I mean, that’s part of the larger agenda of the very disciplined test-based accountability for public schools and no accountability for private ventures in the educations. 

[00:22:27] Jon M: I’m thinking specifically of New York. For example, the SUNY Regents, when they issue and evaluate charters and schools haven’t raised their standardized test scores by a certain percentage, then they just close them down. So, as you’re saying, there’s a mix. Some places are doing that. Other places just aren’t regulating at all. 

[00:22:48] Bob S: I would say, as someone who I went to high school in New York state, moved to Massachusetts for college, and spent decades there before moving, south. the Northeast is not the country. The way things are done in the Northeast and the way that things are done in the rest of the country, particularly south and the central states, is very different in terms of education. And there is, you know, much less regulation of the private sector in those states.

[00:23:14] Amy H-L: How powerful are these corporations that make up this testing industrial complex? 

[00:23:21] Bob S: They’re powerful, and not. Lots of people believe that it’s all about the money, and there’s lots of money involved. Annual testing is a multi-billion dollar venture. While it may be $5-7 billion a year, a lot of money for us and our listeners, it’s a drop in the bucket in the cost of a public education. K-12 education is about a $700 billion a year operation. So it’s less than 1%. Yes, those companies lobby. Yes, Pearson, a British multinational conglomerate, saw No Child Left Behind adopted and the then president of the company said, “This is our business plan” and came rushing into this country, underbid to win lots of contracts, spent all their money on advertising and promotion and very little on quality control, and had a devastating track record, with the results that that Pearson was fired by three of the four largest states in the country for terrible performance in New York, Florida, and Texas. But, you know, they were just replaced by other companies, many of which were new startups that have moved into that same arena. So, you know, there’s lots of money there. The companies want that money, for sure. But the driving force is, the role of the major foundations has been more significant than the role of corporations, at least as I see it.

[00:24:50] Jon M: What’s your feeling about Advanced Placement testing?

[00:24:53] Bob S: FairTest has always been more agnostic about that. We know many of the critics, have been on panels with them, who say, I think correctly, that that Advanced Placement courses have typically been a mile wide and an inch deep so that, you know, they skim the surface. The exams use for Advanced Placement are better than most exams. In all Advanced Placement exams, are at least half, they call them constructed response. But non multiple choice. You have to gather information. It’s more of like what you would do in a college project. But most importantly, for kids, the Advanced Placement and its tests are gateways rather than gatekeepers. They’re not keeping kids out of college. They are giving some kids, and there’s certainly a lot of privilege involvement, an extra opportunity to get a leg up on the college experience by getting courses and tuition costs under their belt. But it’s not a place we’ve placed lots of energy because it’s not a huge barrier.

The only counterpoint to that is in 2020, when the College Board rushed into the marketplace a new type of Advanced Placement exam and online at-home mini tests because they wanted to keep the $500 million a year they earn from testing fees, and with schools closed down, those tests were a disaster, and we are currently involved in a class action lawsuit against the College Board and its contractor, the Educational Testing Service seeking, on behalf of students and families who were damaged by testing errors, half a billion dollars. 

[00:26:40] Amy H-L: What actually happened with those tests? 

[00:26:43] Bob S: Well, you know, what happened with those tests is what happens every time a jurisdiction tries to quickly transform pencil and paper tests to computerized format. We’re not Luddites. And there’s potentially lots of advantages to computerized testing. But doing it at the last minute without beta testing, without trying out your technology, you run into failure after failure. For example, the College Board, in all its brilliance, designed new online AP exams which were not compatible with iPhones, the most common smartphone in the world. The many kids, too many kids, probably more than one is too many, would start taking the test and submit it and get a blank screen and you spend three hours writing answers and nothing happens, or they would submit. And it said they’ve submitted. And the College Board said we don’t have any answers. It’s your fault.And lots of technical and customer service flaws like that, with the result that it’s hard to believe that anybody takes those scores as meaningful and inaccurate.

There are a lot of kids who were able to, because of a legal intervention, have their tests rescored and suddenly went from a low score, like a one or a two, to a score that gets you college credit, like a three, four or five. The AP program is the largest single revenue source for the College Board. It’s actually surpassed the SATs as a revenue generator. Kids registered for those tests in the fall, so the College Board was sitting on $500 million when schools closed down in spring of 2020. They needed to work or to give the money back, so they had to invent something as a way to justify the charge, and these quickly designed tests where a failure for many.

[00:28:39] Amy H-L: Thank you so much Bob Schaeffer of FairTest. 

[00:28:42] Bob S: Thank you. 

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