Standardized tests should be used as “a flashlight” on what works in education not as “a hammer” to force outcomes, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said during a speech last week.
The statement reflects a shift in thinking since annual testing became federal law more than 20 years ago, and it echoes past comments from Cardona, who warned states against using 2022 NAEP scores punitively when they showed steep drops in reading and math in September.
But federal policies stemming from the two-decade-old No Child Left Behind Act and its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, make it difficult for states to use standardized tests in any other way, policy experts say. And despite changing attitudes, there’s little indication that the nation’s schools will move away from the current form of test-based accountability anytime soon.
“It doesn’t matter what the sentiment is,” said Jack Schneider, an education professor and policy analyst at the University of Massachusetts-Lowell who is also an advocate for including alternative measures like school climate, teacher ability, and school resources in accountability policies. “The law is structured so that it really isn’t much of a flashlight.”
Cardona did not announce any new testing-related policies or plans for the Education Department in his Jan. 24 speech to educators, so it’s unclear if the agency plans to address concerns about test-based accountability through grants, waivers, or rulemaking. The department hasn’t announced any plans to revise standardized testing policy.
Still, his words reflect ever-changing opinions about standardized tests and what role they should play in evaluating school performance.
“He’s trying to bridge two eras,” Schneider said. “Right now, we are still very much in the era of test-based accountability because that’s the law. He also recognizes that’s not going to persuade very many people for much longer as a mechanism for school improvement.”
The lasting impact of No Child Left Behind
The debate over school accountability and standardized testing has been going on for over half a century, said Daniel Koretz, an education professor at Harvard University who has dedicated his research to high-stakes testing.
The original designers of standardized tests envisioned the tests as a way to measure individual students’ performance, not as an aggregate measure of schools’ performance, Koretz said.
They “were adamant that these tests cannot provide a complete measure of what we care about, what our goals of education are,” he said. “They’re necessarily incomplete.”
Despite that original intention, states and the federal government found standardized tests to be an efficient way to determine whether schools were performing to standards. And test proponents have said they’re necessary for ensuring English learners, students with disabilities, students of color, and low-income students don’t fall behind.
The government’s role in using tests to evaluate schools—rather than individual students—was solidified when former President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002.
The law, which had bipartisan backing and functioned as an update to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965, required states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school with a goal of bringing them all to a state-determined level of proficiency by the 2013-14 school year.
It also established sanctions for schools that failed to stay on track and make “adequate yearly progress” with test scores. The law gave states—among other measures—the power to shut down schools that missed achievement targets several years in a row. Waivers to the law during the Obama administration loosened some of these rules but also required states to set up systems to evaluate teachers in part based on student test performance.
“That enormously ramped up the pressure, particularly in low-achieving schools,” Koretz said. “At that point, teachers really had no choice. They really could either fail, cut corners, or cheat.”
The law was later reauthorized as the Every Student Succeeds Act in 2015, which loosened the federal government’s role in K-12 schools, removed requirements that states evaluate teacher performance based on student outcomes, and gave states power to decide what should happen to schools that miss performance targets.
But the law maintained the standardized testing requirements established in NCLB.
“The heart of NCLB, which is test-based accountability, remains in place,” Schneider said.
Advocating for a balanced approach
Some who oppose test-based accountability aren’t against standardized tests themselves. Large-scale standardized tests are useful in measuring how students in a certain state or across the country are performing compared to their peers.
But they are also limited. Critics say they offer only a snapshot of a student’s understanding of core subjects, making it difficult to determine whether a student performed poorly because they weren’t taught the material or because of outside factors like their mood, health, or home life.
Instead, testing experts say they’d like to see a more balanced approach to standardized tests. That means having more coherence among the large number of state and national assessments so they build off each other and can better help inform instruction and curriculum, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit focused on improving assessment and accountability practices.
It also means measuring students’ progress over time and the skills they’ve acquired, not just changes in their scores from one test to another. Tests also need to provide feedback to teachers more quickly to be useful, Marion said.
“I don’t care that [a student] went up six points—that might be good,” Marion said. “But did she learn how to better organize her paragraphs, vary her sentence structure, things like that?”
States can help ease the burden of accountability on schools by using the more balanced approach, and some states have, Marion said. But unless there are changes to federal law there will always be pressure for schools to produce high test scores.
The political outlook
Cardona’s message indicates a shifting perspective on the role standardized tests play in society, but not much has been done to actually change the federal law that lays out standardized tests’ role.
The Education Department could establish waivers, giving states more flexibility to create pilot projects to improve testing systems. And Congress could rewrite the law to put less of a focus on accountability.
But ultimately improvement would require more respect for education, Koretz said.
“Education has a very low status in this country,” he said. “A lot of policymakers don’t respect teachers or any other educators. They don’t trust them. So, who are you going to trust to go in and evaluate schools if you don’t trust educators?”