The war on testing

The war on testing
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America’s war on testing entered a new phase this spring as every state extracted a federal waiver from end-of-year assessments of its school kids in reading and math, and most also skipped their own end-of-course and high-school exit exams. 

The College Board and ACT suspended their college admissions tests until autumn, and many universities announced that they won’t require — or in some cases even consider — such scores from next year’s crop of applicants.

A big crocodilian smile is spreading across the faces of teacher-union leaders, who despise the tests that function as external audits of their pupils’ learning — and hate them even more when a state or district employs those scores as part of teacher evaluations. Anti-testing organizations are beaming, while civil rights groups have piled on, using the passions unleashed by George Floyd’s murder and ensuing events to step up their campaigns against standardized testing. 

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For those of us who have labored for decades to reform and rejuvenate American K-12 education, in part by holding schools accountable for their results, this is the making of a perfect storm. It was, however, building well before now. In a recent report for FutureEd, Lynn Olson and Craig Jerald attributed the backlash against testing to union and lobbying efforts, and even the media, who they say have influenced policy makers to turn away from testing. More than half the states reduced testing between 2014 and 2019 and the coming months will bring more of the same. The Massachusetts teachers union wants to scrap the Bay State’s highly regarded “MCAS” high-school graduation exam, despite evidence that requiring kids to pass it — and sticking to that policy over many years — played a huge role in boosting Massachusetts to the highest-scoring state.

The crusade to do away with college admissions testing arises from similar sources: parental concern about kids stressed by test anxiety; educators’ complaint that test-prepping consumes too much classroom time, takes the joy out of learning, distorts the curriculum and discourages creative instruction; and the belief that test results discriminate against poor and minority youngsters and hinder the quest for equity, opportunity and upward mobility in American society.

The contention that achievement testing wrecks the life prospects of disadvantaged children is fast becoming a fixture in the progressive canon — and the post-COVID-19 reorganization of U.S. society that many foresee, whether with pleasure or dread.  

Is the SAT (and its cousin, the ACT) an impediment to opportunity and diversity? Yes, according to a growing number of colleges, most prominently the University of California (UC), whose decision to suspend the use of such scores for in-state students’ entry to its nine undergraduate campuses was widely seen as a bulls-eye hit by anti-testers. 

The rationale for colleges going “test-optional” is that using SAT and ACT scores to determine who gets in frustrates the quest for greater racial diversity because students of color typically get lower scores.

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No right-thinking person favors less campus diversity, but shooting the test messenger will almost certainly end up making matters worse, not better, in schools and colleges.

In the K-12 system, the absence of test results will revive concealment of the disastrously weak education being received by millions of poor and minority kids, leaving them to be socially promoted until they earn diplomas that signify little or nothing, causing them to be ill-prepared for what follows high school, while leaving teachers and schools unaccountable. We will paper over the country’s deep, enduring achievement gaps, mislead students and parents alike and frustrate families’ ability to choose more effective schools for their daughters and sons.

At the post-secondary level, the demise of common, objective, external measures of educational achievement and readiness for advanced work will cause selective colleges to base admissions decisions on subjective factors, and therein lies much new trouble. 

Even as the reduction of K-12 testing conceals school failures and achievement gaps, the subtraction of admissions testing will ease the push for school reform while strengthening the push to inflate kids’ grades and GPAs. The pandemic has already led many schools to go pass-fail on grounds that pupil work cannot be fairly judged when done at home, and sticking with pass-fail will gain adherents as teacher-conferred grades lose their value.

If standardized tests cease to exist, colleges that can afford it will practice “holistic” admissions, which means evaluating thousands of applicants across a host of factors such as essays, interviews, teacher recommendations, extracurricular activities and summer work. Families who can afford it will find myriad ways to confer fresh advantages on their kids. 

It’s no secret that upper-middle-class families spend money and deploy other assets to get their children into high-status, advantage-conferring colleges, not limited to hiring coaches (and their online equivalents) to prep their 11th and 12th graders to ace the exams. If testing is replaced with “holistic” measures, parents will simply direct their money and energy into burnishing children's “holistic” attributes. That means summer schooling, essay editors, interview advisors, fancy internships, exotic travel and a dizzying array of extracurricular embellishments. 

It’s likely, in fact, that equity gaps will widen as exams — initially designed to equalize opportunity, regardless of socioeconomic status — get replaced by criteria that are even more susceptible to manipulation. All that will happen as the demise of testing conceals the “opportunity destruction” wrought by dreadful schools and the victory of established adult interests over the push to reform a K-12 system that is the biggest single contributor to those equity-cramping differences in SAT and ACT scores.


Chester E. Finn Jr. is a distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He served as an assistant U.S. secretary of education, 1985-1988, and as a presidential staff assistant. He is the author or co-author of more than 20 books, including “Learning in the Fast Lane: The Past, Present & Future of Advanced Placement,” (2019).