Give teachers gift: Rethinking tests
As a researcher who studies educational inequities in New Jersey, the K-12 school closures across the country shine a bright spotlight educational inequality issues. As schools announced shut downs and 1.5 billion children around the globe faced school closures, middle class and affluent parents in NJ kicked into high gear. They shared their lists of home schooling supply orders and sample schedules to maintain sanity. During this difficult time, they are planning virtual playdates, cooking and reading novels together, and making family art projects. Private lesson providers are holding lessons like violin, dance and martial arts over Zoom. Some parents are hiring teachers or tutors virtually, continuing with nannies to assist with the balance, adding supplemental instruction such as Kumon, joining virtual homeschooling co-ops, and setting up cozy school areas in their homes. And then some have even excitedly shared the post from a mother who said no to remote schooling.
None of this is easy, but they often have the resources to make the best of the situation. Additionally, these parents are frequently in jobs that offer some degree of workplace flexibility allowing them a way, albeit an incredibly challenging one, to make this work.
But this is clearly not the reality for all families. Many New Jersey families, like those highlighted in my research, do not have workplace flexibility, private childcare or funds for extra educational enrichment. Instead these families are forced to cover childcare needs with older siblings or elderly relatives (for whom this could be dangerous). These families are going to closed schools to receive meals, sharing technology, completing schoolwork on cell phones, and attempting to concentrate in crowded homes or with housing instability. They do not have yards or easy access to fresh air. They might also be very hesitant to tell school administrators they are foregoing requisite online learning because threats like truant officers, DCF and grade repetition loom inequitably large. These populations are commuting on still crowded public transportation and disproportionately hit by the virus.
The digital divide is on full display in NJ where some districts are digging out from piles of student work while others moved seamlessly online with the knowledge their students would have access to technology. While some students across the country have parents with educational advantages assisting them as they navigate the platforms, links, and communications, in other families where English is a second language, parents are still working outside of the home, or students have special educational needs, the challenges are amplified. Families experiencing illness and death from Covid-19 are facing significant trauma. When students return to classrooms in NJ, they will be returning from completely different experiences. Resource and opportunity gaps for children always influence educational experiences and test scores and are all too often overlooked by policy makers, parents, and others who judge schools and teachers based on ratings and rankings. After this pandemic the so called “achievement gap” will be more like an achievement canyon in the years to come. But the disruption of our school year and the pause to standardized testing creates a moment for reflection.
Hurricane Katrina ushered in an era of unprecedented school restructuring in NOLA. Let’s let this crisis usher in a very different restructuring in NJ. We must rethink the focus on standardized tests and make sure teachers and schools don’t have to work tirelessly to test prep the students for the NJSLA tests next year and can instead worry about their individual student needs (evidence from students that were affected by hurricanes shows immediate sharp test score declines and potential long term trauma and college/career effects). Federal law mandates state testing and it will likely be argued that these tests “still provide useful information about where individual students and groups of students will need support” but the reality is that teachers and schools will still feel pressure to tailor instruction to these tests and that we could instead trust them to asses student needs without this burden. We must instead recognize the importance of social-emotional health and move that to the top of our priorities (especially since students may be going to school under unprecedented conditions that ask them to distance and alter their behavior). Let’s provide for all children the kinds of creative opportunities advantaged families sought out at the first opportunity instead of further narrowing the curriculum to prepare for tests. Let’s be creative in how we approach the needs of students and trust educators (just as we had to trust them to completely recreate their educational models during the pandemic) rather than undermine their autonomy.
There is so much we do not know yet about what the 2020-21 school year will look like, but this Teacher Appreciation Week, let’s give a gift to our teachers and use this moment to reevaluate our current focus on standardized testing.
Dr. Molly Vollman Makris is Associate Professor and Program Coordinator of Urban Studies at Guttman Community College, City University of New York.