students rigidly undergoing standardized testing.

Is Standardized Testing Communist?

Is standardized testing communist? It may seem crazy to compare the two, but the more I see the effects that standardized testing has on schools, the parallels seem uncanny.

Standardized testing and communism both begin with a grand vision of equality. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” In communist theory, everyone contributes what they can for the greater good, while the government ensures no one goes hungry or homeless.

You don’t need to be a history buff to know how the communist experiment turned out for the Soviet Union. And while The People’s Republic of China didn’t suffer a total collapse, both the USSR and the PRC destroyed millions of lives in their efforts to implement their grand visions.

Standardized testing takes a similar approach to learning. Each student does her very best to learn. (From each according to his ability). And in turn, schools are meant to ensure they all meet grade level standards (To each according to his needs).

How Standardized Testing is Like Communism

There are many reasons why communism didn’t live up to the hype. But the main problem was the gap between theory and reality. It’s easy to talk about meeting everyone’s needs. But actually doing so is something else entirely.

Once the revolutions succeeded, communist leaders were unable to provide to each according to their needs. Instead, they consolidated their own wealth and power. And in the end, they turned out more corrupt and oppressive than the elites they replaced.

Can we really say that the standardized testing experiment has been all that different? When high stakes testing became widespread in the United States, its stated goal was to address inequities in education.

But 20 years after No Child Left Behind mandated that schools be held accountable for their standardized test scores, massive inequities persist. And few would argue that NCLB (or its successors, such as ESSA) have increased student engagement or achievement.

Vacuum sucking money from schools to illustrate how standardized testing companies divert resources away from improving the educational experience in classrooms

In fact, high stakes testing has been most detrimental to the students it was meant to help. And test scores have become a stick for punishing the educators who teach underserved populations.

All the while, testing companies rake in billions of dollars every year producing and scoring the tests. Then, many of these same companies sell “standards-aligned” textbooks and software to help students prepare.

Big on Vision, Short on Details

Like communism, high-stakes standardized testing offers a vision for success, but lacks a plan to achieve it.

Who would argue that everyone should have enough food to eat? Or that every child deserves a great education? 

To end hunger, someone needs to produce the food. To achieve educational equity, someone needs to do the teaching. And those responsible for setting such high expectations are rarely the ones tasked with meeting them. 

To someone who doesn’t farm, it may seem reasonable to tell a farmer to double their wheat production. Such lofty mandates were features of Soviet Russia’s Five Year Plans. Each plan laid out a series of lofty production goals for farms and factories. five rows of chairs lined up next to each other. mimicking rigidness of desks.

Since there was no way to reasonably achieve these goals, the system was rife with shortcuts and falsified reporting. Officials who submitted reports showing success were rewarded with accolades and promotions. Those who owned their shortcomings were fired, or worse. 

Similarly, enormous pressure falls on teachers and school administrators to maintain adequate yearly progress. In 2009, hundreds of educators in the Atlanta public schools system were found to have changed student answers on state tests.

I once worked for a principal who told me to make sure twelve 4th graders passed the state math exam. I suggested we choose fifteen students to work with in small groups. But he insisted, “Not fifteen, twelve. No more, no less.” If fifteen students passed, he explained, it would be harder to show adequate progress the following year. The system was literally incentivizing administrators to prevent students from learning.

Unrealistic Mandates

Like the Soviet Five Year Plans, many of our educational achievement mandates are flat-out ridiculous. Somebody decides that a certain level of sophistication in writing is appropriate for a 4th grade student. Or that a certain math problem is appropriate for a 9th grader. Then, schools and teachers are judged by how many of their students meet those standards.

NAEP Mathematics Achievement Test Results 4th, 8th, and 12th grade standardized tests in math.According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), just 40% of 4th grade students are proficient in “grade level” math. By 8th grade, the number drops to 35%. And by 12th grade, just 25% of students are considered “on grade-level.”

In reading, about 35% of students are proficient in 4th and 8th grade, increasing slightly to 38% by 12th grade.

What does it mean to be on grade level, if just a third of our students are on it? And how can we blame educators for these shortfalls when most of the non-proficient students are concentrated in schools serving low-income students of color?

Standardized testing scores showing the percent of Students Reading on or above Grade Level chart. Grade 4 and Grade 8. Multiple circles with 37%, 35% for Grade 4 and 36%, 34% for Grade 8By nature of the communities they serve, these schools have higher rates of absenteeism, access to fewer resources, and primarily employ teachers with less experience.

Wealthy suburban districts have it relatively easy. Teachers need simply meet the needs of students who begin the year on grade level. While inner-city and rural schools with the least capacity and the fewest resources must find a way to fill gaps from prior years, and teach students grade-level content. 

Bad Data Practices

Another problem with standardized testing is the lousy data tests provide teachers and schools.

The first time I saw the scores for my 5th grade math students, I was shocked. I expected the test to tell me which students could do math at a 5th grade level, 4th grade level, and so on. Instead, all they told me was whether or not students could do the math at their current grade-level.

A student could come to my class 5 years below grade level, and leave just 1 year below. They’d still be considered non-proficient. But another student who arrived above grade level and learned nothing all year would be considered proficient.

Such weak reporting means that teachers of high performing students are virtually guaranteed success. While teachers of low-performing students are guaranteed to fail. And since test scores correlate with family income, that means wealthy districts get accolades, while low-income districts get the wagging finger of judgement.

The problem begins with the tests themselves. A 5th grade test should include a few questions from kindergarten, a few from 1st grade, 2nd grade, and so on. But this is rarely the case. It’s not that the grade level data is hidden from teachers. The tests aren’t even asking the questions. Despite all the time, money, and energy we spend on standardized testing, no one actually knows what grade level most of our students are on!

If we did, we might be able to create learning plans that meet each student where they are, and try to close gaps over several years. 

Instead, schools test, test, and retest. Benchmark tests. Practice tests. Screening tests. In the mad rush to meet proficiency by year’s end, no one even has the time to digest the data from one test before moving on to the next.

Garbage In, Garbage Out

“Garbage in, garbage out.” This was Mr. Davis, my high school calc teacher, any time we complained about a crazy answer coming from our TI-84 calculators. 

Man overlooks his students who have their heads down as they're taking a paper test.And it’s the same issue plaguing schools in the era of high stakes testing. Schools are held accountable to data that doesn’t accurately reflect the learning taking place in schools.

Since tests do a poor job of measuring growth across grade levels, schools are incentivized to go after the “low-hanging fruit.” Schools identify students who narrowly missed proficiency, and undertake herculean measures to ensure they pass the next year.

On the other hand, they realize students who bombed the test have little chance of passing the next year. Others scored so highly they’re guaranteed to pass again. Both groups are low priorities for differentiation and extra support.

In all cases, there is little appetite for the slow process of developing conceptual understanding. Students who engage in student-centered and Inquiry-Based Learning developing lasting conceptual understanding. They understand the ‘why’ behind the learning, and they can apply what they learn outside of the classroom.

But the short-term focus on test scores incentivizes teacher-centered instruction over student-centered learning. This low-concept, low-engagement approach sends the message that school is boring, hard, and even irrelevant. 

Our fixation with testing has caused us to lose sight of what I believe to be the true purpose of school: raising productive members of society.

Most wealthy districts do well enough on standardized tests that they can forget about test scores and do what they feel is best for their students. But schools desperate to raise test scores focus endlessly on test prep. This causes a vicious cycle where student engagement drops, teacher stress rises, and the quality of instruction stagnates.

Not Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Beyond even the question of how we measure proficiency is the matter of what we measure. After all, what is school for? To ensure everyone can write a 5-paragraph essay or graph a quadratic equation?

Our fixation with testing has caused us to lose sight of what I believe to be the true purpose of school: raising productive members of society.

While social-emotional learning has become a popular buzzword, there’s still no standardized test for SEL. And how many students graduate without knowing how to write a resume or manage their money? How many can prepare a healthy meal or run a 5k?

Testing mandates force schools to shift focus away from such valuable life skills to focus on short term test results. 

Avoiding the Standardized Testing Trap

The best advice I have for educators concerned about test scores is this: If you build, it they will come. Build a strong school culture. Develop teachers’ skillsets. Create meaningful learning experiences

It may be tempting to study the tests and try to game the system. But that approach rarely leads to success. Instead, as hard as it may seem, just pretend that the tests don’t exist. 

The following strategies can help you to focus on high quality learning, and less on high-stakes testing.

Remember: You Are Not Your Standardized Test Scores

If you were a local official in a communist country, a failure to meet quotas (or falsify reports) was dangerous. You could be publicly shamed, jailed, or worse.

Fortunately for educators, much of the tough talk around testing is just that: talk. While some teachers have been fired over test scores, those cases are rare. More often, I see teachers in underfunded and understaffed schools worrying about test scores. When I ask who’s waiting in the wings to take their job, most of them laugh.

Most of the “high stakes” connected to test scores are internalized. Of course, we all want our students to succeed. But when that drive produces stress and anxiety, we aren’t doing students any favors.

Do your best to forget about the test scores. Take the time to build foundational understanding, and allow students to learn through inquiry and productive struggle. In the end, if your students engage in meaningful learning experiences, their scores will go up. Be patient, and trust the process.

Gather Your Own Data

If you really want to use data to drive instruction, you’ll need better data.

Data from standardized tests can tell us which students are or are not proficient at grade level. But what we really need to know is the grade level at which they are proficient. That way, we can meet them where they are, and help them work toward grade level proficiency.

There are a number of assessments, such as the NWEA MAP, which will give you more detailed information about your students’ strengths and needs. The MAP is designed to be taken several times per year, so you can use it to track progress. The trade off of course, is more time spent testing and less time learning.

multiplying with area models practice from Khan Academy
Multiplying with Area Models Activity from Khan Academy

Another option is to implement a personalized learning program. Personalized learning is an instructional model that tailors content to the needs of each student. When students work on an adaptive platform, such as IXL or Khan Academy, the software adjusts difficulty in real-time, based on student responses.

Adaptive platforms also gather and report highly targeted data about student performance. The instruction and assessment are embedded, so you don’t need to pause the learning process to measure progress.

It’s important to note that personalized learning is more than a piece of software. If you’re planning to launch a PL initiative (or if your current initiative could use a reboot), check out our Five Step Personalized Learning Plan.

Make a Three Year Plan

Most schools set achievement goals on a yearly basis. Last year, we had 35% proficiency. This year, our goal is 50%.

But once you start getting better data, you’ll probably notice that one year is just too short of a timeline. If you have students reading 3 years below grade level, they’d need four years of growth in one school year to become proficient. Keep in mind, since they’re below grade level, it means they’ve typically progressed less than one grade level per year.

Reversing that trend takes more than rushing students through content. It often requires reflection and planning at the administrative level, as well as training and instructional coaching for teachers.

Schools that are successful at transforming culture and achievement take the long view.

Year 1: The first year is about aligning the community around a vision for change. Ensure the lines of communication are open in both directions. Conduct workshops and demo lessons to create a sense of what is possible. Update curriculum plans and schedules to reflect the new vision for success.

Year 2: The second year is about building capacity. Recognize and empower teacher leaders. Provide coaching to any staff who want it, and introduce accountability measures to hold-outs.

Year 3: By the third year, substantive changes should be evident in classroom practices. These changes should be reflected in standardized test scores. Ongoing support is provided to incoming teachers and those continuing to adjust.

Don’t Go it Alone

Is your school caught in the standardized testing trap

Sometimes it’s hard to tell. Many schools have been in the trap for so long, it can start to feel normal.

That’s why it’s so helpful to partner with someone who can provide an outside perspective. 

Room to Discover has helped thousands of educators, across hundreds of schools, to escape the standardized testing trap.

We create custom solutions, including workshops, coaching, and consulting, to address your school’s most pressing challenges.

Schedule a free consultation today to find out which of our programs can help you cultivate a culture of success for your students, teachers, and leaders.


About the Author

Jeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an educational consultant specializing in student-centered learning practicesJeff Lisciandrello is the founder of Room to Discover and an education consultant specializing in student-centered learning. His 3-Bridges Design for Learning helps schools explore innovative practices within traditional settings. He enjoys helping educators embrace inquiry-based and personalized approaches to instruction. You can connect with him via Twitter @EdTechJeff