testing amid turmoil

The following is a guest post by Zach Griffen.

A specter is haunting the U.S. education system—the specter of not being able to carry out the routine administration of standardized tests. While written achievement tests were considered controversial in U.S. schools throughout the 19th century, by the mid-20th century it became acceptable to measure the “merit” of individuals via instruments such as IQ tests. Nowhere was this more true than in the higher education system, where competition between institutions led to shifting definitions of merit and to assertions about the role standardized testing should play in a meritocracy. Today, in the middle of a public health crisis that makes such testing difficult (if not impossible), both critics and advocates of standardized testing are raising new questions about teaching and the measurement of learning in the U.S. What role will academics—and teachers, students, university administrators, and others—play in this process?

One answer comes from a new proposal issued by University of California President Janet Napolitano. While many colleges and universities have suspended standardized test requirements for Fall 2021 admissions in light of the coronavirus pandemic, earlier this week the La Times reported that Napolitano has called for more permanent changes:

In a proposal posted Monday, Napolitano is recommending a complex and unusual five-year plan that would make the tests optional for two years and eliminate testing requirements for California students in Years 3 and 4. Then, in Year 5, UC would move toward a standardized assessment developed specifically for the 10-campus system.

This would be a significant change for an institution that serves as a massive engine of economic mobility, one that could have ripple effects on higher education nationwide. And Napolitano’s recommendations were not prompted solely by the coronavirus; an Academic Senate task force had been working on a new proposal for how to use standardized test scores in admissions since early 2019. The task force report, which was published before the onset of the pandemic, recommended for UC to keep the SAT and ACT as admissions requirements for at least five years, while simultaneously developing its own testing system that “will assess a broader array of student learning and capabilities than any of the currently available tests.” In part, the changes recommended by Napolitano and the Senate task force reflect ongoing debates over how predictive test scores are of student success and the effect they have on the likelihood of being admitted as a student from a less advantaged group. And in a showdown reminiscent of the dueling testimonies from economists during the recently concluded Harvard affirmative action lawsuit, the Senate report prompted a separate analysis by three UC experts in education policy and economics that:

slammed [the]…faculty recommendation to keep the SAT and ACT for at least five years, giving ammunition to critics of the controversial exams who want to drop them as an admissions requirement…the experts asked the Board of Regents to instead consider using the state assessment for K-12 students in California and several other states known as Smarter Balanced, which research shows is as predictive of college performance as the SAT with less bias against disadvantaged students.

None of these parties is suggesting doing away with standardized testing for admissions completely, but rather suggesting changes in who should be responsible for administering tests (private corporations like College Board or ETS? The State of California? UC itself?) and the implications for making admissions decisions that affect campus diversity. And yet the coronavirus raises a different set of problems: how does evaluative decision-making work in our educational institutions when key assessment factors become suddenly unavailable?

College admissions tests are not the only evaluation practices that have been affected by the pandemic: standardized tests for K-12 students in public schools have been canceled, letter grades at many colleges and universities have been replaced with pass/fail options, and schools across the U.S. educational system have either eliminated teacher evaluations or made them optional. In short, what we are currently experiencing is a breakdown of the “rituals of verification” that have become increasingly dominant in U.S. education from pre-K to graduate school. For years now, scholars of quantification have been documenting the myriad ways in which educational institutions collect data on students, teachers, and professors, and how these data then become part and parcel of both organizational decision-making and everyday activity. With the coronavirus pandemic, we are faced with the fact that not only are these quantification practices fraught with logistical challenges and biases; in many cases they have become impossible. This begs the question: how will our educational institutions respond to these breakdowns for the duration of the pandemic, and what will education look like once we are able to resume some semblance of normal life?

Let’s consider this question in light of an example derived from outside the world of higher ed: the annual standardized tests that public school students take all over the U.S. from elementary to high school. These tests serve a number of purposes: they let keep school administrators up to date on their students’ progress, they inform the public about the “quality” of the education system, and—often controversially—they’re used to evaluate and discipline teachers. While some states have canceled these tests outright, others have been unable to resist the ritualistic desire to assess student progress and are offering optional standardized tests to evaluate how much students are learning remotely (research on virtual schooling suggests an unsurprising answer to this question: not a lot).

Still, many state testing regimes were experiencing a backlash before the coronavirus hit (fueled in part by conservative opposition to the Obama administration’s Common Core initiative), and that backlash is only going to grow if students are forced to miss another semester (or two) due to the lackluster crisis response from the government. Similar to colleges and universities, states and schools districts will have an opportunity to reassess the role played by standardized tests in organizational decision-making: if public education keeps functioning for a year or two with a dramatic reduction in testing, then people might get the idea that tests aren’t 100% necessary for the upkeep of business as usual. This doesn’t mean we should get rid of testing altogether, but it may whet the public’s appetite for change, both in terms of how students get educated and how learning is measured. The question is: who gets to reimagine education? Teachers? Or Bill Gates?

Other examples of how the pandemic has affected test-taking suggests that private interests are mobilizing quickly to further improve their grip on the education system. The College Board, no doubt wary of a drop in revenue, is offering remote, open-book versions of the Advanced Placement tests that allow high school students to gain credit before entering college. Because not all high school students have regular access to a laptop or high-speed internet, the tests can be taken on a tablet or cell phone, or students may submit photographs of their handwritten answers. Unsurprisingly, when thousands of students attempted to log into a hastily created submission website at the same time, a system glitch prevented some students from submitting their answers (on a positive note, this furthered the dankness of the memes about text anxiety).

No need to panic: the College Board has assured affected students that they’ll be able to sit for AP exams again in June.

Meanwhile, standardized tests required for admission to professional schools such as the LSAT are instituting virtual proctoring that allows a stranger to access your webcam remotely for the duration of the test. This comes on the heels of a recent merger between the corporation providing the proctoring service, ProctorU, and another professional testing provider called Yardstick Assessment Strategies. As vast swaths of the education system may be shuttered indefinitely and facing massive budget cuts due to the coronavirus, the digital commodification of the testing industry appears poised to continue apace.

And yet! An increasing number of law schools—including some of the most prestigious in the U.S.—were already in the process of dropping or altering test requirements, supposedly to increase diversity (though likely also in the interest of lowering yield rates by increasing applications). Led not by the humanities or social sciences but rather disciplines like molecular biology, over the last few years a wave of Ph.D. programs have turned the GRE into an optional requirement. This brings us back to the debate over UC admissions, and the broader philosophical questions at hand: to test, or not to test? And if we test, what are we testing for? And how does the knowledge we gain from testing students inform us about the kinds of educational institutions we want to build? As the LA Times article that prompted this post noted,

UC’s decision a half-century ago to require the SAT propelled the test to a place of national prominence, and a move to eliminate the requirement in the early 1990s prompted the College Board to revise the exam to satisfy UC objections about its bias and relevance for admission reviews.

At every level of the U.S. education system, standardized testing plays a prominent role in organizational decision-making in ways that affect both diversity and status, and in many cases also affect the content of education (only sometimes by design). There are huge economies built up around nearly every individual test that involve tutoring, prep textbooks, and proctoring. To be sure, the coronavirus will be (indeed, already is) a catastrophe for education. Jobs will be lost, inequalities will be exacerbated in new and frightening ways, and learning will suffer. But we can also use this as an opportunity to think about and prepare for education’s future and our role in it: to reflect on what should change or stay the same, which forms of assessment we need and which we don’t. To ask ourselves: at this point in time, in the midst of a pandemic and facing an uncertain economic future, what is the purpose of education, and how should we measure our success in achieving that purpose? These are questions that academics are going to be asked a lot going forward. We should probably get started on our test prep.

Zach Griffen is a PhD Candidate at UCLA.

Author: Dan Hirschman

I am a sociologist interested in the use of numbers in organizations, markets, and policy. For more info, see here.

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