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Voices: Santa Claus and standardized tests

Author Angela Engel says standardized tests only serve to widen the divide between students of means and those who are lacking resources.

When I was a little girl I believed that a fat bearded man climbed down my chimney and delivered my dreams wrapped in red and green paper under our family Christmas tree. When I was grown and knew the truth, I passed the belief to my young daughters because it is tradition and because hope is a beautiful thing.

High-stakes standardized tests are a lot like Santa. We think we have a magical way to deliver intelligence and responsibility – like the myth, “If you are good, you get presents.” Kids today are taught to believe “if you color in the right bubbles, you get something, like a college education followed by a high paying job.” Some lies are as harmless as a tooth fairy. But other lies have the power to wound.

For the parent who does not have the means to wrap their child’s hope in shiny ribbons and place them neatly underneath an ornamented tree, the tale of Christmas can be a curse. For the little girl who wakes up on Dec. 25 to discover that all the toys in the stores and television miracles were delivered to other children, Santa is a bitter disappointment. It is a torment for the little boy who wakes up Christmas morning to an empty refrigerator and wonders if it happened because he is a bad boy.

How well a child scores on a standardized test is correlated to their parent’s income, not the size of their brain, nor the quality of their school. Like the story of Santa, millions of parents perpetuate this lie because, however false, test scores feel like a badge of achievement. The Pearson or McGraw Hill label of “above proficient” or “proficient” simply makes them feel good. It’s hard to challenge the things that make us feel good, even if those same things are an injustice to others.

On June 1, 1999, the U.S. Department of Education agreed with Debra Gaudette after the Connecticut State Department of Education refused to provide her daughter’s test answers on the Connecticut Mastery Test (CMT). The Department of Education ruled that the Connecticut State Department of Education violated Gaudette’s parental rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) in denying her access to the test information.

When his daughter was denied her diploma, Martin Swaden of Edina, Minn., asked to see his daughter’s answers from the test used to determine who graduates from high school. Initially, the state refused his request but Swaden, an attorney, persisted by threatening to sue the school district. When finally given the test and his daughter’s answer sheet, Swaden sat in a room with state officials and found his daughter had correctly answered six questions that the National Computer Systems, NCS, had scored wrong. Had NCS scored her correctly it would have been enough to raise her above the score required for graduation. When it was all over, the state determined that errors by NCS had caused 47,000 Minnesota students to get lower scores than they deserved, 8,000 to fail when they should have passed, and 525 seniors to be unjustly denied diplomas.

Errors in standardized tests are common and far less rampant than recognized because test publishers like Pearson and McGraw Hill operate privately without public accountability or education oversight. An independent audit of the Florida FCAT identified an error in 2006 Third Grade Reading Test described as an “accidental misplacement of ‘anchor’ questions.” The FCAT is used as the measure to retain thousands of Florida third-graders.

This year Elizabeth Phillips, principal of PS 321 in New York City, wrote a letter to John B. King Jr., education commissioner of New York State, expressing concern over flawed test questions that included an eighth grade language test featuring a talking pineapple with no correct answers.

“The idea that teachers may lose their jobs and schools may be closed based on how children do on these problematic exams is incredibly upsetting and demoralizing to educators…I hope that you will consider recommending to the State Legislature that given the flaws in the tests, we are not yet ready to use them for high stakes decision making,” according to an article on

These multiple choice tests are used every day to make high stakes decisions in student placement and retention, whether a teacher keeps their job or gets a raise, and which schools stay open and which schools close. It is no mistake that every “turnaround” school has served low-income and minority children. This model of standardization and high-stakes testing has perpetuated education inequities. Children of lower-income families have traded teachers, art, music, computers, after-school programs, counselors, athletics, and prevention services for Scantron test sheets. Their wealthy counterparts in higher-income areas learn Chinese, violin and how to access information globally.

High-stakes tests have thus served to widen both the achievement gap and the opportunity gap between the rich and the poor. Under this feigned banner of “accountability” America’s growing caste system has once again been legitimized; teaching white wealthy children to think smarter and poor colored children to work harder. High-stakes standardized tests are a lie. A lie, similar to the North Pole tale, that rewards high income children and denies low income children of the most important gift: a meaningful education.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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