Jonathan Turley: Oregon, others ditch standardized tests — it's our kids who will be hurt most

Oregon lowering learning standards ‘bigotry of low expectations’: Maj Toure

Cicero Institute COO Whitney Munro and ‘Black Guns Matter’ founder Maj Toure discuss Oregon’s call to exterminate reading and math as education requirements.

I was once told by a pilot that jet bridges are the most dangerous places in aviation because “no one dies on the plane.” When someone has a fatal episode on a plane, the preference is to move the person outside to “call the code” on the bridge rather than require the plane to be held or quarantined due to the death. 

If you just move them outside, they died somewhere else. The result is that it can be challenging to determine how many people actually die on airplanes.

That story came to mind this week as more traditional public schools moved to end standardized testing—a move that can guarantee no student fails in their schools. In this case, students who can’t read or do basic arithmetic are being sent out into society or even to college to fail somewhere else. Anywhere other than the traditional public school.

Many of us have long lamented the chronic failure of government-run, union-controlled schools in major cities like New York, Detroit, Washington, D.C., and Baltimore. Too many students in those cities and more don’t achieve bare proficiency in reading, writing, and math. The response in many districts is for some to declare standardized testing or meritocracy as “racist” while other districts eliminate special programs or schools for gifted students. 

Oregon has found a simpler approach. Gov. Kate Brown (D) just signed a bill last month that drops any proficiency requirement in reading, writing or math, before graduation. Problem solved.

The short bill includes this provision:

“SECTION 3. Notwithstanding any rules adopted by the State Board of Education, a student may not be required to show proficiency in Essential Learning Skills as a condition of receiving a high school diploma during the 2021-2022, 2022-2023 or 2023-2024 school year.”

The pandemic was the basis for initial suspension of such requirements, but now it is being extended. The call for a more “inclusive and equitable review of graduation and proficiency requirements” was supported by Foundations for a Better Oregon to change requirement to “reflect what every student needs to thrive in the 21st century.” That appears not to include being able to write, read, or do simple math. The supporters insist that it is unfair to require students to demonstrate knowledge on tests.

Charles Boyle, the deputy communications director from Gov. Brown’s office, is quoted as saying that the new standards for graduation will help benefit the state’s “Black, Latino, Latinx, Indigenous, Asian, Pacific Islander, Tribal, and students of color.”

The “benefit” however is more to the school district in getting kids out the door with a diploma without shouldering the burden to get them to a point of bare proficiency. Teachers like Larry Lewin testified in support of the change:

“The students I tutored at North Eugene High School were largely Latinx kids, and to a one, they were resigned, fatalistic, and lacking any hope for graduating with their classmates. They knew the score—they knew they were losers in the system. No amount of coaching, cajoling, mentoring from me would inspire them to want to write better. The Essential Skills Requirement had already sunk them. I was not teaching how to write, how to communicate, how to use language for a purpose; I was test prepping them—again.”

There is value to what Lewin says about “teaching to the test” and the need to focus on substantive learning. I respect him for his continuing commitment to his students and his sincere opposition to testing. 

However, it is chilling to see a former public school teacher say that “no amount of coaching, cajoling, mentoring from me would inspire [Hispanic kids] to want to write better.” That is the point of education. We have to get kids to reach a level of bare proficiency—and better—and demonstrate that ability with an objective test.

The move in Oregon is part of a larger effort to eliminate standardized testing and scores on every level of our educational system. If there are no such standardized scores, there is no ability to easily compare the achievement of schools or even the achievement of students applying for admission. Recently, the University of California system joined the “test-blind” movement and said it would end the use of the SAT and ACT in its admissions decisions. The move followed a decision of California voters not to lift the long ban on affirmative action in education under state law. Many have decried standardized testing as vehicles for “white supremacy.”

The elimination of standardized testing means that it would be much more difficult to prove that the universities were still engaging in racial discrimination or preferences. With no testing scores for comparison, it would be nearly impossible to show that race was the major or dominant factor in admissions. 

University of California President Janet Napolitano sought to eliminate standardized testing by assembling the Standardized Testing Task Force in 2019. Many people expected the Task Force to recommend the cessation of standardized testing. However, the Task Force surprised many (most notably Napolitano herself) by releasing a final report that concluded standardized testing was reliable: “at UC, test scores are currently better predictors of first-year GPA than high school grade point average (HSGPA), and about as good at predicting first-year retention, [University] GPA, and graduation.” It even found that “test scores are predictive for all demographic groups and disciplines … In fact, test scores are better predictors of success for students who are Underrepresented Minority Students (URMs), who are first generation, or whose families are low-income.”

Despite those conclusions, Napolitano unilaterally announced a cessation of the use of such scores in admissions.

With states like Oregon now eliminating the need to demonstrate proficiency on basic subjects with standardized tests, American education faces the perfect storm. Despite record taxpayer spending on public schools, too many government-run, union-controlled schools are still failing students—particularly minority students—in teaching the basic subjects needed to succeed in life. 

Too many schools are graduating students without testing barriers for graduation. Then too many may go to colleges and universities that have also eliminated standardized testing for admission. 

At every stage in their education, they have been passed along by educators without objective proof that they are minimally educated. That certainly guarantees high graduation rates or improved diversity admissions. However, these students are still left without any marketable skills as they enter an increasingly competitive job market and economy. 

Any failures will come down the road when they will be asked to write, read, or add by someone who is looking for actual work product. They will then be outside of the educational system and any failures will not be attributed to public educators.

If we truly care for these students, we cannot rig the system to just kick them down the road toward failure. It is like declaring patients healthy by just looking at them and sending them on their way. 

We have the ability to measure proficiency and we have the moral obligation to face our own failures in helping our kids achieve and succeed.

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