6 Reasons Your Kid Could Have Less Standardized Testing in 2016

From cheating scandals to the opt-out movement, the influence of high-stakes exams waned in 2015.
(Photo: Jeff Greenberg/Getty Images)
Dec 29, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s been a rough year for standardized testing—the timed, fill-in-the-bubble-with-a-No. 2-pencil mental gauntlets feared by students, loathed by teachers, and loved by education policy makers, perhaps because they no longer have to take them. Testing started in earnest decades ago as a measure of academic skills and intensified in 2002 as education policy specialists suggested it could help students in the United States catch up with their global peers and measure how well public schoolteachers are doing their jobs.

But over the course of 2015, there were major disturbances in the testing universe. Students, with their parents’ blessing, chose not to take them; a growing number of colleges questioned their usefulness; and arguably the biggest official proponent of testing decided to leave his post. Here are the top six moments of 2015 that will influence what happens in classrooms next year.

6. Computer Problems With Standardized Test Scoring

The partial list reads like a random roll call of the states: Illinois, Virginia, Montana, North Dakota. Yet, that’s only a handful of the dozen or so states where computer glitches either ruined or didn’t deliver results of high-stakes assessment tests, according to information compiled by the Center for Fair and Open Testing, also known as FairTest. States pushed back, withholding payments to testing firms—in Nevada, where only 30 percent of students completed the test, authorities reached a $1.3 million settlement. In Indiana, testing giant CTB McGraw Hill did nothing to correct a problem that fouled up thousands of scores on the Hoosier State’s assessment test.

5. ACT, SAT, OUT: More Colleges Dropping Tests as Admission Requirement

As K–12 standardized assessments fell by the wayside, 2015 saw an increasing number of colleges and universities either scaling back use of the ACT and SAT tests—or ditching them altogether—as an admission requirement. The factors leading them in that direction are familiar to any college-bound teenager anxiously awaiting the oversize, computerized envelope containing their scores, and, essentially, their future: heightened student stress before, during, and after the test; the temptation to cheat; and the test's inability to objectively determine if a top scorer is a knowledgeable student or just a great test taker.

4. Atlanta Cheating Scandal Concludes

In a cautionary tale for the nation, 11 Atlanta educators were convicted in April of altering, inflating, or fabricating test scores on student achievement tests in struggling schools, bringing to a close the most massive cheating scandal in the nation’s history. Authorities said the scandal dated back to 2001, when scores on statewide aptitude tests shot up unexpectedly; more than 30 educators were indicted in 2013, and most took plea deals. The educators—ranging from classroom teachers to school administrators in on the conspiracy—were sentenced to a mix of prison time, home detention, probation, and fines.

3. Explosion of the Opt-Out Anti-Test Movement

In arguably the biggest blow to the bureaucratic education reform movement, an estimated 500,000 students in seven states, from New York to Oregon, chose not to take federally mandated assessment tests in the spring, with the blessing of their parents, according to FairTest. (The U.S. Department of Education won’t have official opt-out numbers until later this month.) Testing advocates say the tests hold teachers accountable and measure student progress, but opponents say kids are over-tested. A recent study by the Council of the Great City Schools found that, on average, a student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between prekindergarten classes and 12th grade, yet most Western countries still outperform the U.S. on international standardized exams.

2. Education Secretary Arne Duncan Resigns

Identified as a lightning rod for anti-testing forces, Duncan was a strong believer in assessments and accountability—positions that angered both liberals and conservatives, as well as teachers unions. Yet, during his tenure between 2009 and 2013, math and reading scores for American 12th graders didn’t budge, and the test results of fourth- and eighth-graders showed only negligible gains. Duncan dismissed critics of his reliance on testing as the carping of “white suburban moms who, all of a sudden, [discover] their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.” Duncan later walked back the remark as “clumsy phrasing.”

1. No Child Left Behind Is Scrapped

Signed in 2002 by President George W. Bush, NCLB was intended to use the federal government’s influence—and standardized assessments—to lay some tough love on the public school system. The goal of the legislation was to make every student proficient on state tests in reading and math by 2014 regardless of race, family income, or disability. But states didn’t meet their targets, and critics say it created a teach-to-the-test culture at the expense of critical thinking skills. When Congress overhauled the law, now called the Every Student Succeeds Act and signed into law by President Barack Obama, it kept NCLB’s biggest feature: the tests. But the new legislation significantly reduces the frequency of standardized testing.