June 2021
Op-Ed: What the #CancelTheTest Advocates Are Missing: Examples From the World of English Learners
by Christine Montecillo Leider, Christina L. Dobbs, and Johanna M. Tigert

Over the past year and a half, state and local education agencies across the country had to make decision after decision: How much live, synchronous teaching should we be requiring? When should we open up the school buildings again? What should grading policies be while we are in the middle of a global pandemic? How can we keep everyone safe? Many of these questions were arguably addressing a temporary situation directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last winter, another question that was raised was the debate over whether or not the federal government should cancel standardized testing. Similarly to the aforementioned questions, the #CancelTheTest conversation was largely treated as a temporary situation: Should schools delay testing because of issues of health and safety? Should we just cancel 20/21 testing outright since the data will be unreliable anyway? What if the data are just used to further highlight inequities for historically marginalized students that we already know exist?

While we believe in the essential nature of thoughtful, useful assessment, the #CancelTheTest narrative that arose amidst the pandemic was missing the larger point that our large-scale assessment measures were inequitable and insufficient even before the pandemic—and that is not a normal to which we hope to return. Here, we illustrate problems with standardized testing that we believe are missing from the #CancelTheTest conversation. Given our backgrounds in working with classified English learners (ELs), who make up to 10% of the U.S. public school population, and in an effort to normalize the experience of multilingual students, our following examples center on these students.

Testing Culture Has Always Been Problematic

Since their inception, standardized tests have been problematic. They are used for high-stakes decisions: grade level progression, tracking, high school graduation, and evaluation of “effectiveness” of teachers and schools. Relying heavily on what is only a simplistic snapshot of a student’s academic performance is, at best, a way to make narrowly informed decisions. Yet considerable time and money are being dedicated to preparing and administering these tests while funding for the education of the increasing number of ELs has remained flat.

Additionally, the data that any standardized test does capture are often presented without enough consideration to the variation in school and district resources, which tend to be more limited for schools that educate large numbers of ELs. There is also evidence that standardized tests do not accurately measure multilingual students’ academic performance and that the very nature of standardized tests is racist. This should be the core of the #CancelTheTest conversation.

#CancelTheTest = Cancel Some Standardized Tests

The #CancelTheTest narrative also centered around the idea that the default student is a monolingual student in the general education classroom. Consequently, the tests that were being targeted for cancellation are those that all students are mandated to take, such as the MCAS in our home state of Massachusetts. In contrast, #CancelTheTest advocates rarely acknowledged the additional standardized assessments that classified ELs encounter each year. For example, the 40 states that are members of the WIDA Consortium use the ACCESS to determine an EL’s progress toward proficiency in English. The ACCESS is typically administered in January and February, right before general education standardized tests, which means that an EL may potentially spend weeks to months within a “testing window.”

While some called for delaying or outright cancellation of ACCESS for 20/21, few called for the simultaneous cancellation of both core subject and English proficiency testing. With the conversation focused primarily on the general population, we avoid the harder conversation of how to address inequities across different populations of students, especially those who are tested differently or in addition to statewide measures. Instead of talking about the need to reform our testing practices, the calls for generic test cancellation have had the effect of sweeping this conversation under the rug.

Monitoring “Learning Loss” Detracts From Discussions of Equitable Systems

The idea of “learning loss” or the “COVID slide” is a common argument by those who are for testing and existed even prior to the pandemic in discussions about the “summer slide” or extending the school day or school year. Ironically, given their high-stakes nature, standardized tests often push teachers into “test prep mode,” which ultimately takes time away from learning. The “learning loss” narrative is especially harmful for ELs, for whom it creates a double deficit narrative—an argument that language assessments are necessary in order to monitor English language maintenance and also an argument for the general tests to monitor “learning loss.” Ultimately, we wonder what is the point of monitoring if the data are only used to further position students as deficient—and if we are not going to do anything to reform the systems that lead to the supposed “learning loss”?

Let’s Just Cancel Outright!

Ultimately, in response to a mandate from the U.S. Department of Education, state and local education agencies made decisions to move forward with standardized testing, with some modifications and options regarding scheduling, scope of tests, and parental opt-out. However, we urge education stakeholders to use this moment in time to consider the questions, Why not just cancel standardized testing outright? Why not use this time to reimagine different policies and ways of doing school? The insistence on returning to “normal” not only disregarded the idea that annual high-stakes tests have always been problematic, but also the fact that existing problems will only continue to grow as the student population becomes increasingly diverse. It is time to put the resources now being needlessly expended on standardized testing into reimagining schools for the future.

Prior to the pandemic, we worked together with teachers, students, and families to imagine a schooling system that is more equitable and responsive to multilingual learners. It seems short-sighted to now fight our way back to the same world we found inequitable before the pandemic. The world pushed us to reimagine schools this past year. What a shame it would be to look backward instead of imagining the world of schools we know it is possible to build.

Christine Montecillo Leider is a clinical assistant professor of language education in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. Her research focuses on teacher education and understanding how systems of policy and teacher instruction shape the education experience for culturally and linguistically diverse students.

Christina L. Dobbs is an assistant professor of English education in the Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. Her research focuses on adolescent writing in the disciplines, academic language, disciplinary literacy, and teacher professional learning.

Johanna M. Tigert is assistant professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. Her research focuses on students’ right to maintain their home languages as well as on preparing content area teachers to effectively meet the needs of multilingual students.