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Could Standardized Tests Contract a Fatal Case of Covid19?

I had planned to take April 7 off this year, prior to school shutting down due to the Covid 19 Pandemic. I had scheduled appointments with my physician, my dentist, and my chiropractor in order to justify the “sick day” I had entered months in advance, though in truth what made me sick enough to miss school that day was not a physical ailment cured by a medical professional, but rather the addiction that our nation suffers to the erroneous notion that we can quantify intellect using multiple-guess assessments. The ACT was scheduled to take place on April 7 across my home state of Nebraska, though I had decided earlier that I would no longer participate in the institutionalized racism and socio-economic oppression that is standardized testing.

For years, I’ve encouraged kids to “do their best” on the test while simultaneously reminding them at every opportunity that these tests do not do what those who profit from them claim.  On my classroom door at Omaha North High Magnet School is a scantron sheet with the words “THIS DOES NOT DEFINE YOU!” written with a bold sharpie. Surrounding this signage is a list of more than one thousand test-optional colleges and universities in the United States. I tell kids,“You get a ‘good’ ACT score, sure, use it to get scholarships. But if you don’t, don’t let that make you think you don’t have plenty of great options.” I cannot tell you how many times over the years students have paid my room a visit, just to reread that scantron and be reminded of its message. Some of the smartest students I’ve ever had the pleasure of teaching did not do well on the ACT, and when I bring this up with my fellow teachers, I hear more and more of the same.

Those of us actually doing the work of educating young people know how limited, if not entirely useless, these standardized tests really are.

Colleges and universities also know this. The nationwide movement to go “test optional” is well documented and has gained a full head of steam in recent years.  When Northern Illinois University declared earlier this year that they would go “test blind” and admit every applicant with a 3.0 GPA or higher, the University’s President, Lisa Freeman, referenced eliminating “unnecessary and biased barriers”. In reality, standardized testing was designed to be such a barrier – biased, to segregate races in response to immigration, and to give white Anglo Saxons an advantage in gaining higher education. Truth be told, the tests have never veered off this scurrilous course, and have effectively stood between racial and ethnic minorities and the spoils of higher education for over a hundred years.

According to a study commissioned by the Nebraska Board of Education in 2019, there was a direct correlation between poverty and test scores. The Nebraska high school with the highest average ACT scores, Elkhorn South, had the lowest rate of poverty (3.77%), while the Nebraska high school with the lowest average ACT scores, Omaha South, had the highest rate of poverty (82.1%). And the racial composition of their respective student bodies is, of course, precisely what you would expect. Separated by a mere eighteen miles on Interstate 80, the ACT represents yet another marker of power and privilege for the students at one Nebraska high school, while it represents an intimidating, even insurmountable barrier to those at another.

That is what standardized testing represents to so many of our students: an obstacle, a barrier, a hurtle to be cleared if you want to gain access to the ranks of the educated elite. While some have argued that the tests offer equality by putting the same obstacles in front of everyone, what is clear to those of us who actually work in education is that equality is a cheap substitute for equity, and equity is the thing most jeopardized by standardized testing.  While every student in my home state of Nebraska – which spends more than a million dollars annually on the ACT test, gets to take the test one time for free, the disparity between the student who gets that single crack at this high-stakes exam versus the one who can take and retake it as many times as they like, hire tutors, and study in a comfortable, quiet, warm, well-lit home each night with mom and dad waiting eagerly to help in the other room, could not be more pronounced. A better use of a million dollars annually would be to hire twenty new teachers with that money, thereby reducing class sizes and increasing one-on-one interactions between teachers and their students. Another better use of it might be lighting it on fire.

So why have we, as a nation, continued with the egregious, racist, and inequitable practice of standardized testing for so terribly long?

The answer to that question is the same as the answer to many others: money. The College Board, which owns the SAT Test and all of its subsidiaries, is worth just over one billion dollars, and spent $1,768,295 lobbying for itself in 2013, while paying its CEO $734,192 in salary and benefits.  The ACT’s total assets topped half a billion dollars, while they spent $674,485 lobbying, and paid their CEO $911,073 in total salary and benefits that year.  These entities have the audacity to file for (and receive) non-profit status, yet those who perpetuate them – the employees, boards, and elected officials whose palms are greased with millions of dollars in campaign contributions from lobbyists, in other words the same people whom this system was originally designed to benefit, clearly profit tremendously from the inequities they perpetuate.

When the Covid 19 Pandemic hit, standardized testing was the thing farthest from my mind.  We were on spring break when we were told we would not be returning, and that classes were “going virtual”. All across the nation, dedicated professional educators scrambled to meet the needs of their students in a whole new way.  My doctor, dentist, and chiropractor all called to cancel my appointments as I sent an average of more than two-hundred emails per day to students and colleagues from my home office, and began recording lessons to broadcast on local television for kids to view at home.  When we were informed that we would not be administering standardized tests this year, it was a victory for everyone who actually cares about students, but one we did not have time to celebrate as we struggled to adapt to our new environs, digitize our curricula, and try to prevent kids from slipping through the newly-created cracks that loomed like canyons on the horizon.

As the semester winds to a close, the fact that we did not administer the ACT and SAT in the United States in 2020 is but a footnote in history, but it is one that we can expand upon as we write the story moving forward.  The hundreds of millions of dollars that our nation’s schools spend annually on standardized testing is money that could easily be spent preparing for the next pandemic, ensuring that we are better equipped to deal with it, that kids have access to the technology that they need, that teachers are prepared to go virtual when necessary.  That money could help ensure that systems are in place for rapid response, having realized that schools do not merely offer education, but also food, emotional support, counseling, guidance, physical activity, and so much more.  The money spent propping up the six-figure suits who run these testing companies could easily be spent on two, three, five, or even ten times as many teachers – the five-figure sweater vests who devote every day to student achievement in ways that actually matter, things like knowing kids’ names (rather than asking them to bubble them into a scantron), shaking their hands, calling their parents to tell them about the amazing things they’re doing, teaching them things they need to know, writing letters of recommendation, helping them write college application essays, and loving them for who they are and for who they will become.

For my part, I’ll try never to proctor another standardized test in my lifetime, and I’d encourage all of my colleagues in education to consider testing days as the optimal time to schedule medical appointments. But in 2020, in the midst of a deadly pandemic that shut down standardized testing on a national scale, we can do better than merely protesting. We can wake up. We can look at higher education and realize what more than a thousand excellent colleges and universities – schools like the University of Chicago, Arizona State University, and Northern Illinois University, have already realized, namely that standardized tests don’t do what they’ve always claimed to do, that they don’t tell us anything we need to know. They may be a pretty good indicator of privilege, but they do little in the way of assessing intellect.  As a society, we have never had a better opportunity than we do now to reassess this damaging, unethical practice, and to walk away from a system that was designed to subjugate and oppress in favor of one that will uplift and empower. Now, in the spring of 2020, we can issue a DNR on these exams as they, like so many other profit-driven industries struggle to survive the Covid 19 Pandemic, and out of the ashes of the severely damaged fourth quarter of the 2019-2020 school year, we can help create the equitable, inspiring, individualized system of education that our students – and our teachers, have always deserved.


Dr. Mark Gudgel is a sixteen-year veteran of teaching in public secondary schools.  Presently, Gudgel teaches English, Humanities, and World Religions at Omaha North High Magnet School, and in the M.Ed. program at Nebraska Wesleyan University.  A Fulbright Scholar and fellow of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Imperial War Museum, Gudgel has devoted much of his career to teaching about social justice and civil rights.  When not teaching, Gudgel is an avid runner,  writes poetry, a wine blog, and various essays.  Gudgel was a finalist for Nebraska’s Teacher of the Year Award in 2020, and is appreciative to NNSTOY for this opportunity to share his views. He lives in Omaha with his wife, Sonja, and their children, Titus and Zooey. Follow him on Twitter at @CoachGudgel.

 





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