OPINION: In mandating exams, White House fails first big test

Joe Biden visits a pre-school class at the East Lake Early Leaning Academy Tuesday morning March 4, 2014.
Joe Biden visits a pre-school class at the East Lake Early Leaning Academy Tuesday morning March 4, 2014.

UGA professor: President sucker-punched every educator and student who hoped better times were coming

In a guest column, University of Georgia professor Stephanie Jones says President Joe Biden is wrong to compel states to give standardized tests this year as required by federal education law. Several states, including Georgia, had sought waivers that would have allowed them to forgo tests this year due to the disruptions to schools from COVID-19.

Jones is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia in the Department of Educational Theory and Practice. She teaches courses on teachers as writers, feminist theory and pedagogy, social class and poverty. You can read earlier blog pieces by her on COVID’s impact on education here and here.

By Stephanie Jones

When Betsy DeVos was appointed secretary of education by Donald Trump in 2017, public school educators and public education advocates dropped their collective jaws in disbelief.

A wealthy donor to conservative Republican candidates, DeVos was known to be an advocate for privatizing public education through school vouchers and charters schools with a particular interest in using taxpayers’ money to support schools with religious affiliations. DeVos was not an educator herself, but simply a wealthy donor with a rigid ideological mission to undermine and destabilize public education in this country in a way that benefits for-profit education ventures and the spreading of conservative Christian beliefs.

Money and Religion.

If there are two things that arguably should never influence what happens in this country’s K-12 public education system, money and religion are those two things. And yet there they were, bundled tightly together in one very powerful person’s political agenda that would shape federal policy in education for four years.

Fast forward to 2021 and educators across the country collectively celebrated the end of DeVos’ term when Joe Biden was elected as the new president; even those who might not have supported Biden’s candidacy were likely be quite happy to say farewell to DeVos. The Trump Administration had not been kind to public education with the one ironic exception of waiving state testing during the coronavirus pandemic in 2020.

Joe Biden is a Democrat. He ran on strengthening unions and workers’ rights, supporting  youth’s rights in schools, reinvesting in public education, and advancing policies for racial justice. He even nominated a Puerto Rican public educator from a working-class background with strong beliefs about equity and justice, Miguel Cardona, as secretary of education.

University of Georgia professor Stephanie Jones
University of Georgia professor Stephanie Jones

All of that made Biden look very good for public education, youth, and educators.

And then with a single high-stakes decision -- to mandate that states give standardized tests in 2021 during the multilayered crises this country is in -- he has sucker-punched every educator and student who dared to let down their guard in hope that better times were coming. Here is a brief rundown of how this one decision undermines so much that Biden claimed his administration would be about.

Strengthening unions and workers' rights. Teachers' unions have long argued against standardized testing and the way test results are used for the evaluation of teachers and schools. Unions have also explicitly called for canceling standardized tests during the pandemic for obvious reasons that any educator could name in their sleep. Biden's administration explicitly disregarded the collective knowledge, wisdom, pleas, and demands from unions and workers (e.g. teachers) in this high-stakes decision.

Supporting youth's rights. Our country's children and youth have experienced persistently increasing levels of stress and anxiety related to school, including significantly increased anxiety around high-stakes testing compared to classroom-based tests for children as early as third grade. The pandemic has layered on even more challenging situations for children and teenagers and emergency room visits for mental health concerns increased by 24% for 5- to 11-year-olds and 31% for 12- to 17-year-olds from April to October of 2020. Standardized testing alone has produced mental health concerns for our young people for 20 years now, and we are in a massive public health, social, and economic crisis that is producing mental health concerns for our young people without testing. To mandate testing in the middle of this mental health crisis is to explicitly disregard what experts know about the health and well-being of children and youth.

Reinvesting in public education. Investigative journalism has revealed the high financial cost of mandated standardized testing since it was written into the No Child Left Behind Act in 2001. The cost of testing and all of the materials produced by testing companies and other private corporations to align with the tests has exploded over the past two decades including a significant increase during the adoption of the Common Core in the Obama Administration. State education budgets have been cut during the pandemic, while many schools have seen their costs go up for new and more stringent cleaning requirements and a variety of new materials and hardware to make remote learning a possibility. Forcing states and districts to continue paying out many millions of tax dollars to private corporations is the opposite of reinvesting in public education. This decision literally takes money out of the hands of local and state decision makers to do what they believe is best for their students. If decades of research on the negative effects of testing and the well-being of students isn't enough to decide to stop standardized testing, surely the idea that schools need money now more than the multi-billion-dollar testing industry.

Policies for racial justice. Standardized tests have been racist since the beginning, and it is no surprise that test scores continue to produce a “gap" between racialized groups with Black, brown, and indigenous students consistently scoring lower than white students. In fact, the intensification of using high-stakes testing in schools has exacerbated the already existing race and class inequities in education. Even the foundation of statistics itself, which has fueled a “data-driven" and testing agenda for education, is rooted in racism and eugenics. A mandate to continue standardized testing during a public health crisis that has disproportionately affected Black communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, and poor communities advances racial injustice.

Biden’s decision to mandate testing in 2021 indicates a significant failure on his administration’s part to see how standardized testing fits in with their claimed progressive values and policy stances. His appointment of a man of color who is a veteran educator and advocate for public education as his education leader doesn’t give him a free pass to continue educational practices that are damaging to children, youth, teachers, and communities.

We shouldn’t be surprised by his decision to require state testing this year since Obama’s Democratic administration was equally committed to high-stakes testing, creating unhealthy competition between schools and teachers, and consistently ignored the expert knowledge of classroom teachers, youth workers, and educational researchers. Perhaps we were hopeful, but the politics and economics of testing and testing corporations are apparently too powerful for any contemporary national leader to take a different path in the best interest of children, teenagers, and their social, emotional, and academic well-being.

Public education has no political party it can depend on for support, and as a result, neither do those who work in the system, advocate for the system, or those who are forced to spend thirteen of their most formative years of life in the system. President Biden faced his first high-stakes test in education, and he failed.

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