Standardized tests were introduced during President Lyndon Johnson’s administration to prove the extra funds going to low-income schools were working. As they became more common they helped shine a spotlight on the achievement gap between affluent students and those who struggle financially. That’s why many civil rights groups adamantly defend the tests as crucial for accountability and equality.

In a recent Mother Jones article, Kristina Rizga writes that some of the assumptions about the role of standardized tests for enforcing equality are questionable:

Most importantly, test-based accountability is failing on its most important mandate—eliminating the achievement gap between different groups of students. While racial gaps have narrowed slightly since 2001, they remain stubbornly large. The gaps in math and reading for African American and Latino students shrank far more dramatically before No Child Left Behind—when policies focused on equalizing funding and school integration, rather than on test scores. In the 1970s and ’80s, the achievement gap between black and white 13-year-olds was cut roughly in half nationwide. In the mid-’70s, the rates at which white, black, and Latino graduates attended college reached parity for the first and only time.

The amount of testing has steadily risen and the consequences for failing have become more dire for both schools and individual teachers, creating a perverse incentive to study for the test, and not necessarily to teach well. Now, parents and students are opting out of the tests, arguing the testing detracts from learning.

Rizga’s article explores the history of testing, the movement pushing back against it, as well as what accountability could look like without standardized tests. She profiles hardworking teachers in a San Francisco public school who are continually pushing students to try something slightly outside their reach, while holding one another accountable for good teaching practices.

America’s obsession with standardized tests is harming our kids. There’s a better way.

One hot morning in May, Kiana Hernandez came to class early. She stood still outside the door, intensely scanning each face in the morning rush of shoulders, hats, and backpacks. She felt anxious. For more than eight months she had been thinking about what she was about to do, but she didn’t want it to be a big scene.

What Would Accountability Without Standardized Tests Look Like? 23 February,2016MindShift

  • kryten8

    Accountability without standardized tests COULD look like:

    At the state/national level: All of the money spent on standardized tests could easily fund a state school review board to go into schools and evaluate things like buildings, leadership, teacher practices, and services provided. If you look at the numbers, the amount spent on testing every year could EASILY cover a large staff, completely adequate for running this type of operation.

    At the local level: A portfolio system for each course (encouraging metacognition for students and project-based learning for teachers) with a “portfolio night” open to the public (or at least parents and perhaps journalists). Many schools already do something akin to this; formalizing the process and making sure all subjects are represented would be a good way to make sure accountability is shown.

    • Carolyn Holler

      This article addresses a growing concern for the school I work with and our student population. We have consistently scored well below proficiency as measured by NCLB. Over the past couple years, we have slowly transitioned to the Common Core State Standards, which uses the SBAC in place of the traditional standardized tests. While I think this test is more informative as it has open-ended questions and requires skills like text annotation, it is still a test, and I question how accurate its findings will be. I think such tests can be useful for quick feedback, but I do not think they can accurately demonstrate every student’s skill set.

      In place of the traditional (and even non-traditional) standardized tests, I very much like the idea of a portfolio. Indeed, in my class this year, I am attempting to move away from tests and quizzes and into more project-based assessment. I am also attempting to focus more on mastery of a skill as opposed to a one time test to prove students know something. I have found that most careers, after all, are not set up with standardized tests, but with projects that need to be completed and revised until correct. If the point of school is to prepare our students for their future, I think our assessments should reflect that future as well.

      My only concern with a portfolio system is the way in which work would be evaluated. The benefit of a standardized test is in its (supposed) objectivity. A portfolio would seem to inherently include the bias of the reviewer. Before signing onto that type of system, I would want the process to be thought out and clearly presented to all the stakeholders.

  • joebeckmann

    When tests were first mandated in Massachusetts, with Education Reform of 1993, the state also mandated portfolios, recognizing that tests only measure values relative to other tests, past or current, while portfolios document skills that may not be tested. Portfolios have yet to be seriously evaluated, except for several small scale, incredibly significant examples funded first by the Kellogg Foundation, and later by Ford. Although both foundations, and parents, and teachers, and the schools themselves, were happy with the conclusions – that students could, in fact, evaluate themselves better and more accurately and more cohesively than tests or teachers, and would identify problems as well as strengths with and for each other – the state, led by the Chair of one of the national testing networks, completely ignored the … fact that tests don’t do much and students could do much, much more. It is hard to scale the results of even these high prestige relatively small grants against the millions earned by Pearson for their oversimplified data pool, but I strongly suggest you look at work by Dr. Arnold Packer, at Johns Hopkins, and by Alan Michel, at HOME, Inc., a media education firm that helped students post their ePortfolios on their high school’s website at Somerville High School (

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