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What Would Accountability Without Standardized Tests Look Like?

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Brooklyn parents opt out of state standardized tests. (GIRLRAY/Flickr)

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.


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