I’m an educator. We shouldn’t give standardized tests this year — or ever

All of our students’ understanding of a text or a math problem is reduced to their choice of fill-in bubble. That’s not how real learning works.

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SAT test prep books on a bookstore shelf.

SAT test prep books on a bookstore shelf.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

It’s that time of year again in school districts across America. 

No, it’s not time to reflect on the crazy year students have had as remote, hybrid, or maybe even full-time, in-person learners amid a devastating pandemic. And sadly, no, it’s not a time to celebrate, with many traditional end-of-school events — proms, celebrations,  graduations — modified or cancelled.

It’s that time of year when students sit hunched over their desks, Number 2 pencils in hand, filling in the bubbles on standardized tests.

Opinion bug


During my early teaching days on the South Side of Chicago at Corliss and TEAM Englewood high schools (where the majority of the student population was Black), I became an opponent of standardized tests. I saw how test results labeled my students and my schools as failures. I watched as my brightest students, who showed their brilliance on a daily basis in my class, became dismayed by low scores. 

I was often dumbfounded as to why their intelligence did not translate into a high test score. Was it anxiety over test-taking? But then I read the ample research on racial bias in standardized testing. During my career of working mainly with students of color, I have come to this conclusion: It is the testing itself that leads to the “achievement gap,” not the students. 

Last week, I proctored the SAT test at East Leyden High School, a suburban Chicago school in Franklin Park. As I read the test directions aloud, I realized how this standardized exam, administered every year to millions of high school students across America, does not accurately measure how students learn or show their understanding of concepts. 

Students’ results on any standardized test hinge on their ability to pick the right answer on multiple-choice questions. All of their understanding of a text or a math problem is reduced to their choice of fill-in bubble. As any educator in the field of literacy knows, there are a variety of ways to read texts. There are different ways to solve math problems too. 

And in the real world, I can’t think of a single job in which adults read text and then answer a multiple choice question. Instead, they apply their skills to the job at hand.

Biden’s broken promise

Last spring, due to the pandemic, many districts cancelled standardized exams and colleges began waiving exam requirements for applicants. Even before the pandemic, a growing number of colleges and universities had begun eliminating exam requirements, as research has shown that student GPA’s predict college success better than standardized test scores.

So, why are we bringing back the pre-pandemic testing status quo now, in an about-face from the Biden administration?

In 2019, Joe Biden campaigned on the promise of curbing standardized testing. But now, his Department of Education has ordered that exams be administered despite the pandemic.

Biden’s administration says it wants to see the impact of disrupted learning due to COVID-19. The National Urban League, the National Center for Learning Disabilities and other groups agree, especially as it pertains to the impact on students of color.

But when has testing ever led to an educational revival for schools or students? It usually has the opposite effect: Labeling schools as “bad” and putting them at risk for closure, overwhelmingly in communities of color. 

It took a pandemic for educators to imagine and operate in a world without testing — and our kids and schools did just fine without it. 

Trust educators

What if we trusted teachers in the way that we trust other professionals to do their job?  Instead, the Department of Education has decided to trust the test. 

Standardized exams will be given as usual this year, though many state leaders oppose that action, including in Illinois. Once the pandemic is over, we can expect the same routine.

I invite our federal decision-makers to come to our schools and see learning in action. Watch as our students discuss Shakespeare or solve a calculus problem. Listen to them play music. See how often they check out library books because they’ve learned to love reading. 

Then, come on the day they have to take a standardized exam. No joy, no sound, no creativity.

It is time for us to go beyond re-thinking standardized testing and end them altogether. 

Trust our educators to teach, assess and prepare our students for the world beyond school.

Gina Caneva is the library media specialist for East Leyden High School in Franklin Park. She taught in CPS for 15 years. Follow her on Twitter @GinaCaneva

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