We Don’t Need Tests; We Need Help

Emilie McKiernan Blanton

In 2019, we are still overtesting children. 

Tests are discouraging, stressful, and problematic in so many ways. Kids and teachers hate them. Tests don’t show how well a school functions. Tests don’t show what students have learned. Achievement tests are designed too broadly and administered in such a way as to render them virtually useless to schools. 

The idea of a standardized test is appealing for non-educators. We are told by our regulators and overseers that tests show how well we teach. We are told that we can use them to adjust our instructional practices. The real role of standardized tests is to rank schools under some misdirected guise of allowing taxpayers to see how public education is functioning. We receive the results too late to affect actual change in our instructional practices for the students tested. 

We’ve known the reason for the achievement gap for fifty-three years. On July 2, 1966, James Coleman and a group of sociologists published the Equality of Educational Opportunity report. The report, later dubbed the “Coleman Report,” included data covering hundreds of thousands of students, more than half of a million. Coleman and his peers analyzed survey results and other data to show Congress what any educator could have told it; the number one indicator of educational success is familial wealth. 

Schools are integral parts of any child’s life. Important work happens in schools every day. Schools cannot make up for gaps that were created before children even walked through the doors. We can narrow gaps. Sometimes, we can close gaps for some students. Nevertheless, achievement gaps will persist until we address the economic variables that hinder our most disenfranchised children.

Teachers are not trying to shirk accountability. The problem is that the lack of differentiation to account for these inequalities means that schools full of amazing pedagogical practices are labelled “failing” or “one-star” as Kentucky’s new rating system dictates.

We don’t need more tests.  We need more supports to help our children. From universal pre-kindergarten to more in-depth interventions for our older students, education needs an overhaul. Standardized testing is never going to help with that.

An oft-cited reason for how socio-economic status affects education is “how can you learn when you don’t know when you’ll eat again?” Food insecurity is just one of the ways that poverty affects learning. Due to the lack of access to health care, children who grow up in generational poverty can have significant issues with hearing from ear infections as an infant. If your hearing is affected, learning can be more difficult. Children who grow up in generational poverty are more likely to have asthma. Children who spend part of the night suffering the effects of asthma will have difficulty focusing in class after losing sleep.

Dental health can affect learning outcomes as well. While their affluent peers get cleanings and check-ups, students who deal with poverty can suffer the effects of toothaches that distract them during class and inhibit their ability to sleep at night. Vision is also affected by poverty. A 2002 study by Paul Harris gave randomly selected fourth graders access to optometrical services. The result of that study? Students who received the services grew in reading achievement more than the normal rate. Children living in poverty are less likely to get the in depth visual screening they need and can require assistance to correct tracking and focusing beyond the normal read-letters-from-a-chart-at-a-distance visual screening.

These physical effects are separate from advantages affluent peers receive. Children who have access to educational opportunities before enrolling in school and during school breaks will widen the gap. Parents who have to work two or more jobs in order to make ends meet will not be able to enroll their children in these enrichment activities. 

Schools absolutely can make a difference in the lives of children. Schools and teachers work to close the achievement gap every day. We know, definitively, that standardized assessments will never close this gap. Instead, what do we get? Food for our children? Better dental access? More optometric coverage? No, we get more tests. The tests don’t tell us how to get the things our children actually need.

We know we need intervention and more help. It has been more than half a century since the Coleman Report was published. If we want to affect change and close the gap, we have to address our students’ needs beyond the classroom. 

Coleman’s final conclusion remains true; students benefit from having classmates from a variety of backgrounds, including socio-economic. Diversity remains a gateway to equity within education. Testing does not provide diversity. The only thing that will is effective public policy and the understanding that education is but one piece of an all-encompassing puzzle.

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