How Do We Redress the Harm of Standardized Testing? We Abolish It.
Updated: May 6
A Q&A w/ UW professor and MMSD parent Maxine McKinney de Royston
We recently interviewed UW–Madison professor of Curriculum and Instruction and Madison Metropolitan School District (MMSD) parent Maxine McKinney de Royston about standardized testing, transforming our understanding of learning, and about the anti-racist potential of the “opt-out” movement. We’ve edited this conversation for clarity and concision.
FFJ: You’re an MMSD parent and a learning expert who has been vocal in advocating, especially in this complicated pandemic moment, for transforming the way we do school. But I’d like to focus this conversation on testing in particular.
How does a culture of high stakes testing harm students, and especially Black and brown students?
MM: When I think about high stakes testing in particular, what I think about is, “What is the theory of learning underneath high stakes testing? What kinds of learning are they trying to assess and evaluate?” And what we know – and this is what the research has showed for a few decades now – is that what tests are examining are very narrow versions of learning. They’re measuring very concrete and specific ways of how you might think about mathematical learning or literacy learning, and they’re focusing on a very narrow band of content as well as very narrow band of how students might demonstrate what they’re learning.
I was just listening the other day to a talk by Dr. Linda McNeil, and she opens up her talk with the question “How are kids understanding the universe?” to get at the different ways we should be thinking about learning and the things that are important for kids to learn. And then, in making a critique of high stakes testing, she said, “You can’t put the universe on a scantron bubble,” which suggests that the ways of learning we generally value in our society are not things that are measurable by high stakes testing.
So how does it harm students? When we use high stake testing as a way to show what students know and can do and our ways of showing that are very, very narrow, we are essentially indicating certain kids can learn certain things and certain kids cannot learn certain things. We’re suggesting that some kinds of learning should be privileged and valued over other kinds of learning. And then we’re designing curriculum to support those very narrow forms of learning.
It’s harmful because we’re necessarily truncating the kinds of learning that are kids can engage in. We’re also necessarily dismissing much of the learning that students are doing all the time and everywhere, outside of school, inside of school, before they come to school. We’re deeming all of that learning as insufficient, unnecessary, and not valued. That’s completely harmful because when students begin to see themselves as low performers, when they begin to see themselves as not being able to achieve, they can internalize those ideas and that can harm their future performance and visions of who they are and what they can become. Another thing Dr. McNeil said was, you know, when we use this testing in school districts what winds up happening is that because there’s this whole system of testing that gets connected to teacher accountability and connected with funding sources, people begin to position children and label and talk about children as either assets or deficits, as liabilities to their schools because they’re not good test takers or because they’re not high performers.
That’s a fundamentally problematic notion of how we think about children. We should not be thinking of children, “What can they do to bring resources to our school? What can they do to paint a better picture of our school?” We should be thinking about children as brilliant and how can we support their brilliance and support their quality of life and their well-being. And so there is a way in which we laminate back on to the child these expectations that are very harmful.
FFJ: One thing that I think we as parents don’t always think about is that there are other forms of learning assessment. Not doing standardized testing doesn’t mean that you can’t assess learning. What do we actually want to measure in schooling? What kind of school communities could we create if we took a different approach to assessment?
MM: One of my hats at the university is being a teacher educator. When we talk with people who want to become teachers, we talk about different forms of assessment. And we don’t talk about standardized testing a lot because teachers aren’t actually the ones who are creating those standardized tests. They may get some information to guide their instruction in the future but they’re not the ones creating it. So, the kinds of assessment we talk about that support learning are formative assessments. These are assessments that inform instruction. So it might be when I’m in my classroom and I’m talking with students I might say, “What did you understand about what Sarah said?” and listen to their response. That’s formative assessment, taking stock of where learning is in relation to the learning goals and using that information to guide live-time instruction. Another way to say this is assessments for learning.
Then there’s summative assessments, or assessments of learning that usually happen at the end of units or after some determined amount of accumulated learning. We often use these assessments to inform how we grade or determine if students have met some particular criteria of desired learning. Those summative accounts can also be used to guide later instruction but their goal really is to capture what we think has been learned and then to assess the quality of that learning to give a grade or to evaluate it in some way. There are also alternative assessments, which can be a range of things that encourage students to really show their sensemaking, by applying and showing their learning. These can be students’ narrative evaluations about their learning instead of grades. These can be student presentations that we create rubrics for and watch students engage in presenting ideas. Alternative assessments push back on the idea that there needs to be one snapshot or one way of assessing learning and instead offer up a wide toolkit of different ways of assessing learning both in live time and over time.
And then you have standardized tests, which are one snapshot in which the snapshot itself is only one moment in time but it’s also a fixed snapshot in that there’s a testing agency that’s creating the scene. If you want to give a metaphor, it’s like when you show up at an event and they have a step and repeat backdrop. You may not have worn the clothes that would look great against that backdrop because you had no idea what it might look like. You just show up the best you can and it’s a snapshot of that moment, that attempt, which doesn’t mean very much at all.
When I think about how we can create school communities that support learning and growth, I personally would get rid of testing, because it takes away from instructional time. Right now we’re in a situation where we’re teaching to the test because tests are linked to funding, school ratings, and teacher accountability. Get rid of high stakes test because they don’t actually give us as much information about learning and about how to support individual students’ growth as we think they do.
Instead, teachers have a ton of information. Families have a ton of information. And folks who work with students in schools, who are not classroom teachers, the bilingual resource specialists, the social workers, the counselors, the instructional coaches, the custodial staff, the cafeteria workers, all of these folks who work within and outside of schools already have a better sense of who these children are, what their skills are, and what kinds of learning they are demonstrating and what they might need support around.
But we don’t invest in those kinds of resources. Instead we give a lot of money, a lot of hidden budget items, to support testing. Tests cost money, training teachers to administer these tests cost money, training people to score these tests costs money, training people to evaluate what these scores even actually mean costs money, storing the tests cost money, shipping the tests cost money, all of these things cost money and the question for us is, is that money well spent towards the aims we have for our schools and towards the kinds of learning that we want for our children? And if not, what else could we be using that money towards?
My argument is that we could be using that time and money towards creating school learning communities that are centered around robust and expansive ways of knowing and doing, rather than narrow ways of knowing and doing. There is no external assessment that is showing us that the more we test kids the more they learn, or the better they do in their next phase of education or the their next phase of life. Nothing suggests that. But we’ve created this system of testing that doesn’t align with our own goals for our children’s education.
FFJ: Testing is really baked into our school systems, with teachers and administrators alike being afraid of scoring poorly on tests that are sometimes implicitly or explicitly tied to funding. So I think for some people, actually opting out can feel kind of messy. What might it mean for white parents and/or parents with privilege to play a role in disrupting the testing system? What is the difficult work that has to be done in terms of advocacy?
MM: Let me say a little about how it’s baked into the system and then say something about the equity work that can be connected to opting out. Since No Child Left Behind, since even before then but that is the biggest one in recent memory, we have shifted to a model where high stakes testing has huge implications for the funding that schools receive as well as for how parents and educational stakeholders look at the quality of education that a school is offering. We’re in a place where how well we do on a test affects the resources that a school has as well as how parents assess the value and quality of that school. That didn’t always used to be the case. That is a modern phenomenon.
I’ve lived in several cities in the last fifteen years and I could tell you that in every city I go to when I talk to other parents about choosing schools, a lot of them are looking at school ratings. And I don’t look at the ratings because the ratings don’t tell me much. They tell me how a school is performing on a very narrow set of measures. It doesn’t tell me how the school feels. It doesn’t tell me how my child is going to be treated. It doesn’t even tell me what the quality of instruction is at that school. At best, it tells me whether or not that school has a lot of financial resources. At best. It’s baked into our system in those ways too.
It’s important to note that school administrators and educators do have a real and justified fear about not engaging in testing. So, when we get to a conversation later about opting out, I want to be clear that these educators have a justified fear about this because some of these tests are linked to resources that the school can offer and they are linked to the funding that the school receives and so there are both incentives for schools to engage in testing and there are also punitive measures for schools if they do not engage in testing. A lot of that has to do with who is offering the test. Is it mandated federally? Is it mandated by the state? Or is it controlled locally through the school district? So as we think of opting out we also can think of those kinds of tiers, who is requiring the test and what is linked to in terms of funding and accountability, as whether or not it’s an equity measure to opt out of that test.
Testing in some states is also linked to teacher accountability. Teachers can be evaluated on how well their students do on these tests and they’re evaluated on how responsive they are in supporting students’ improvement on these tests. There is a lot of conversation that happens in educator circles about moving kids up to grade level proficiency and those assessments are not being created by teachers themselves, yet teachers are being assessed based on student performance on these high stakes test. So there is also something in it for teachers to be able to improve test scores because their jobs, their advancement, their livelihoods are on the line. There are these sets of incentives and sets of punitive measures that make it such that everyone feels that they have to comply with these tests.
Because teachers and educators operate within systems where they feel that they have to comply, one way to think about how to disrupt this testing system, is to ask who might still have power in this system? And often we look towards parents, particularly privileged parents, because they don’t have the same kinds of vulnerabilities as educators in schools. If high leverage parents, if affluent parents, have a strong voice in the schools, strong voice in the community, and if they opt out of tests, that creates a context in which administrators and others can begin to make arguments about why testing is not the way we want to assess learning.
Oftentimes, families who are minoritized, families who already might have difficult relationships with schools, don’t feel like they have the place or space or privilege to have those conversations; whereas privileged parents already have those relationships with schools, already have those connections with school administrators or people in the district, and can be engaging in those conversations at a high level. It doesn’t mean they should be the only ones, it means they have a special place in this equity conversation and they can leverage their power and privilege to support other people. Certainly, those spaces of inclusion need to be created. But even when those spaces do not yet exist, there is a role that more affluent parents can play.
Data shows that children of affluent parents are also more likely to do well on these assessments. So when affluent parents opt their kids out of testing – kids who might be the ones raising the test scores – then the schools are going to be compelled to do something because they need those high test scores to be able to garner the resources and support that feel necessary for their school community. But when affluent parents pull out of that, it changes the dynamic and it changes the conversation. It says, OK, we’re potentially not going to look great. Are there other ways we should be thinking about assessing learning? What else could we do? It shifts the conversation. It shifts the power dynamics around what has become possible.
So, for parents thinking about opting out as an equity tool, I would say, Who is offering the test? Is it mandated? Is it linked to certain kind of resources? And if you are opting out, who does that affect? So, for example, there have been some arguments not to opt out of the ACCESS test because that supports English language learners and the resources they can get and I think there’s an argument to be made for opting out there, but I also think there’s an argument to be made for not opting out there because it’s tied to specific resources. I also think there’s an argument to be made for not opting out of some federal exams that are linked to funding for schools, that schools desperately need. But there are also arguments for opting out of those because we’re continuing to be bound to a system that is only going to perpetuate itself unless we stop it.
I think the stronger argument is to opt out as both an equity measure and an anti-racist measure because these tests are already biased. These tests are already designed to perpetuate racialized achievement gaps. They continue the discourse of a deficit orientation to Black and brown children, families, and communities. And there’s really not a way that we can get out of that cycle unless we opt out of tests and shift the dynamics of how we think about how we assess learning. And so when people say I’m not opting out because I think my school needs these resources, I see that point, but if there is not a critical mass opting out then the strategy doesn’t work. If only three or four people opt out, the strategy doesn’t work.
To break the system you have to actually break the system. I think a stronger equity argument, a stronger anti-racist argument is to opt out, knowing that there might be short-term consequences but long-term gains. And if I was being 100 percent and completely honest with you, I don’t think it matters either way because these children are already being harmed. So the additional harm that is caused to them because they don’t have some additional funding in the schools, that is unfortunate and horrible, but in the long-term, getting rid of the system is the redress to the harm. Not addressing this system prolongs the harm.
I would advocate for opting out as opposed to just prolonging the harm. Some of us opting out is a reform tool that might change a few things that ultimately will prolong the harm. All of us opting out is an abolition tool to try to remove the harm in its entirety.
FFJ: One of my more surreal pandemic moments was watching my first grader, who was angry and frustrated, randomly select answers to a district-level learning assessment during virtual learning. I felt like I was caught in a parallel universe, where everyone had to pretend that something about this moment had something to do with learning. But I also would never have had that experience if not for the pandemic. Are you hopeful about the transformative potential of this moment?
MM: I am hopeful because I think the conversation is happening in spaces and among people and in a pervasive way that I don’t think was happening pre-pandemic. I am hopeful because, when there’s a change in the public discourse, when there is change in what is considered reasonable to discuss, I think that opens up space for new things to happen. This opt-out thing has been going on for a long time and it hasn’t got on the radar of a lot of parents until right now. So that to me suggests that some important shifts are happening that can then be leveraged toward more systemic change.
FFJ: What worries you about this moment?
MM: What worries me is that we’re thinking too small. What worries me is that we will tinker around the edges of a problem as opposed to getting to the root of a problem, which means that the problem then lives another life on another day. The form of it has changed but the function of it hasn’t really changed. Now we all feel good about it but the same harm is being done. That’s the issue sometimes with reform. We change the way we’re doing something but we don’t change what is actually occurring.
Tests are a tool, just like curriculum is a tool, that teachers can use to guide their instruction but the teacher is the one who actually is guiding instruction, not the test, not the curriculum. The teacher uses the curriculum, uses assessments as a way to move forward instruction and right now I feel like we’re still engaging in this process of de-professionalizing and devaluing the intellectual work that teachers do. We’re still saying okay, how can we make the tests better, or how can we have fewer tests, or maybe we’ll, you know, not think that tests show everything but instead they show us this little thing. But it’s still this over reliance on tests, it’s still this undercutting of what learning is and it’s still undercutting and devaluing teachers.
Teachers are human development professionals that are trained to support children’s learning. Now there are certainly things we could do to improve teaching and instruction. As somebody who studies how to think about anti-racist teaching I have a lot of comments about that. That said, I trust teachers over tests and that’s not currently how are system is set up, so what worries me is that we’re still trusting tests and not teachers. And that teachers and administrators and folks who work in schools and districts are still fearful of having to comply and fearful of having to rely on these mechanisms, not only for the work that they do but to fund the work that they do.
I think we’re thinking too small about the scope of the problem and therefore too small about the scope of the solutions. Just to give a quick example, I have a third grader and if I sent my kid back to in-person school it would be for 35 days. And within that 35 day-period they would have been expected to take five standardized tests, ANet reading, FastBridge reading, FastBridge math, Bridges math test and the Forward exam. Some of these exams take multiple hours, so if the argument for bringing the kids back to in-person school is that we’re losing learning – I don’t believe that, but this is the argument being made – and that we’re losing instructional time, someone needs to help me understand why it makes sense in those 35 days to do five exams.
That is going to take away from the instructional time and the learning time we say that we so desperately need. It just doesn’t make sense and there’s no way you can make it make sense. And that’s not including the ACCESS exam, which my child doesn’t need because they’re not an English language learner but if we were an English language learning family, that would be six exams. Each of these exams usually take at least one hour. So if we just say they’re one to two hours (and we know that some of these exams are far longer than that), two times six is twelve hours. Out of 35 days of in-person instruction, we’re going to take away, at a minimum, 12 hours of instructional time.
It seems ludicrous because it is. It is not supporting their learning and it’s not supporting their wellbeing. I haven’t met a kid yet who is, like, “Standardized tests! This is how I’m going to learn!” And I haven’t met a teacher that feels that way either.
NYC Opt Out is a “coalition of parents concerned about the impact of high-stakes testing on New York City’s schools, children, and teachers. Our primary tactic is to organize a boycott of the annual state tests in order to pressure state officials to respond to parent concerns and replace high-stakes standardized tests with authentic assessments.” Their website contains a ton of information and resources, including tips for organizing an opt-out campaign and sample opt-out letters.
Recent UW–Madison “Real Talk” symposium on “Rethinking Schools, Rethinking Learning.” (Panelists include Maxine McKinney de Royston and MMSD Superintendent Carlton D. Jenkins). Here is the paper that helped guide this discussion.
Recent webinar on the racist origins of standardized testing, hosted by the New Jersey Education Association, Black Lives Matter at Schools, and Haymarket Books.
“Six Reasons Why the Opt Out Movement Is Good for Students and Parents of Color” (The Progressive Magazine)
FAMILIES FOR JUSTICE is a network of people in Dane County working to dismantle white supremacy through multi-generational community organizing and direct action. Read more about us on our main webpage.