The decline of standardized tests

By: - May 22, 2020 12:51 pm
UW-Madison's Bascom Hall

UW-Madison’s Bascom Hall (Phil Roeder | Flickr)

There were no state standardized tests in Wisconsin’s primary and secondary schools this spring. No state school report cards will be issued next year. Both the ACT and SAT suspended their May college entrance exams. The June SAT has been cancelled as well, and the ACT, while not cancelled yet, is in doubt. While Wisconsin has about 250 sites listed for that June date on the ACT website, no one is quite sure how many of those sites will be open on the day of testing or whether the exam will be given at all. The virus pandemic has hit standardized testing hard.

No more ACT or SAT

The good news for students who still want to go to college next fall is that they might not have to worry about taking any of these exams. They will have lots of options available. The entire UW system, with the exception of Madison, has dropped the submission of these test scores for the next two years. At least eight colleges or universities in Wisconsin have made submission of ACT or Sat test scores optional, the largest being Marquette University. Similar actions are taking place in colleges and universities across the country.

While the immediate reason for the suspension of these standardized tests can be attributed to the virus outbreak, a backlash against standardized testing has been building for several years. The current virus outbreak only accelerates the marginalization of such tests.

Robert Schaeffer, interim executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, says that Wisconsin colleges are part of a national trend away from the entrance exam requirements. Over 1,000 colleges and universities will no longer require exam scores, not now, not for years to come, maybe never. Recently the entire University of California system dropped the test requirement. This includes the top public universities in the country: UCLA and UC-Berkeley. A top national private institution that no longer requires exam scores is the University of Chicago. Other elite universities are likely to follow.

The colleges and universities that have temporarily dropped the exam requirement may discover they can figure out who will do well at their colleges without test scores, and they will abandon the exam requirement permanently, says Schaeffer. Institutions that drop the requirement “rarely go back.” He would not be surprised if the UW system never returns to the exam requirement.

The College Board offered Advanced Placement tests this month. They had little choice. Advanced Placement classes need final testing if colleges are to give prospective students college class credits based upon final test scores.

Students were allowed to log on with their home computers and leave the computer cameras on so that the tests could be proctored remotely. Nevertheless, about 2% of test takers were not able to upload their responses to the two essay questions they were required to answer per test. These students will be allowed to retake the tests later this summer.

The College Board, which also sponsors the SAT, says that this at-home, online option for Advanced Placement testing is a one-time anomaly. They hope to go back to in-classroom testing next school year, but the question remains whether this experiment in home-based test taking might also be a dry run for SAT and ACT college entrance exams for the future.

Both the College Board and ACT are scrambling to maintain relevance for the future. For if many more colleges abandon entrance exam requirements, their markets will collapse. 

There is a growing disenchantment with the reliability of such entrance exams to determine who will or will not do well in colleges. Character, determination, involvement in high school activities and grade point averages appear to be a better predictor of who does and does not do well in college.  

The need for using the ACT as a secondary test questioned

If colleges ultimately drop the ACT/SAT requirement, it undercuts one of the major reasons Wisconsin established the ACT in 2015 as part of its system to evaluate secondary schools around the state.

The first two Wisconsin school systems to establish ACT for all graduating high school students were Milwaukee and Monona Grove — beating the state mandate by several years.

I was on the Milwaukee school board in 2011 when I pushed for requiring all Milwaukee graduates to take the ACT. I did it for three reasons:

First, almost all colleges at the time required either the ACT or the SAT for entrance. I still believe there were Milwaukee students who never planned to go to college who got a good score on the ACT and ultimately attended and graduated from college because of that requirement.

Second, the ACT gave us test scores that we could use to compare ourselves with other cities and — after Wisconsin made it the state standard — against other states.

Finally, our state test was homegrown and had a lot of deficiencies. The ACT was far superior to the Wisconsin Knowledge and Concept Examination (WKCE).

Susan Fox is a member of the Monona Grove school board and was a middle-school social studies teacher at the time her school district instituted the ACT for all. Fox says that her school district lacked the pressures to improve test scores that were felt in Milwaukee. But parents in her district had high expectations for their schools.

School officials had to prepare the community for the possibility that, once everyone took the ACT, the overall school scores would drop. But that gave the schools the opportunity to examine curriculum and make changes. Over time, scores improved.

Fox believes that her school district tried to do this without demoting art and music programs, without resorting to hours focused on test preparation. But overall, Fox thinks Wisconsin schools ultimately went too far with standardized testing, narrowing the curriculum and causing unnecessary test anxiety for students and teachers.

Overuse or misuse of testing

Schaeffer’s organization is not against standardized testing, only the overuse and misuse of these tests. Under No Child Left Behind, Schaeffer believes that standardized testing was used primarily to punish schools that did not meet the standards. 

Wisconsin threatened a takeover of schools in Milwaukee but found it to be a hard sell. In 2010, Democratic Governor Jim Doyle tried to turn the Milwaukee system over to Milwaukee’s mayor, but the state Legislature, controlled by Republicans, refused to go along. Then under Republican Governor Scott Walker, the Republican Legislature turned around and supported a similar action in 2018, giving the Milwaukee County Executive somewhat more limited but similar authority. This time it was the Democrats that opposed the action, but the Republicans had the votes. The law was passed, but has not been implemented to this point.

Around the country, no similar actions to punish poorly performing schools has resulted in improved outcomes for children, says Schaeffer. We need to look to other actions to improve education.

The lack of testing for the 2019-2020 school year throws the whole Wisconsin school report card system into chaos, not for just one year, but possibly for two or even three years. That is because the current report card system not only measures test scores, attendance, graduation rates and so on for a particular year, it also measures student growth from year to year. The problem is that there will be no baseline scores for the 2019-2020 school year: no test scores, no complete attendance data, almost nothing. School report cards may take a couple more years just to have consistent data.

This is not the first time Wisconsin has forgone a state school report card because of a lack of testing. Wisconsin had no report card for the 2014-2015 school year because of a change in state testing. Previously Wisconsin relied on its own state-developed test, Wisconsin Knowledge and Concepts Examination (WKCE). This was the first year Wisconsin changed testing including the ACT suite of tests. At that time, schools could still report attendance, graduation rates and so on. The state school report card could bounce back in the following years because it was able to compare other data, other than testing, from one year to the next. That is not the case this time around in 2020.

More parents and educators want to ditch the overreliance on standardized testing and look to soft skills to determine how well schools are doing. They want their children to be masters of creativity and problem solving, of positive socialization and human interactions; not just bubbling in answers on a standardized test.

New paradigm to measure our schools

State and federal requirements for standardized tests are still on the books. They are only suspended for the time being. The question remains whether we will return to retesting in the years to come. But if we begin to minimize the role of standardized testing, what will take its place?

Previous to standards testing, schools were measured on what they offered. How many days of instruction? Teacher certification? What classes were offered? Did they follow a mandated curriculum? Schools were measured less on graduation rates, attendance, or test scores. Wisconsin could return to those old measuring sticks, or a different way of measuring schools in the future. 

Standardized testing may be on the decline, and grading schools will become increasingly more difficult. Free-marketeers are likely to continue to push for more open enrollment, charter schools and funding of private schools – let the parents decide. However, we have seen what happened in Milwaukee when voucher schools were allowed to open with few state standards. Some of those schools were truly dismal. 

Some kind of standards will likely remain, perhaps a decrease in testing and a renewed emphasis on school requirements and licensing, as we move into a post virus world.

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Terrence Falk
Terrence Falk

Terrence Falk worked for more than 31 years as a Milwaukee Public School teacher and served for 12 years on the Milwaukee school board and as Milwaukee's representative to the Wisconsin Association of School Boards. He has written for Milwaukee Magazine, Shepherd Express, Science Magazine, Urban Milwaukee and School News.