Pencils Down: It’s time to rethink tests

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

How reliable are tests in measuring what really matters for 21st-century learning? And should high-stakes tests really be used as a punitive evaluation of teacher quality? With all the controversy surrounding standardized tests and cheating, it’s time for teachers, parents, districts and policymakers to consider alternatives. Pencils Down, an anthology that takes a stance against high-stakes testing, may just be the book to offer those alternatives.

The editors of Pencils Down, published by the education nonprofit group Rethinking Schools, have culled together articles that not only critique the impact of high-stakes testing, but offer viable options for resisting and providing visionary forms of assessment that are authentic, fair, and democratic.

In the introduction, the editors confront “the tsunami of high-stakes testing and accountability” and the “free market” education that reduces teachers and teaching to test scores. The refrain reverberates for anyone in the education trenches — parents, students, teachers, principals, District officials:

Now, students = test scores. Now, teachers = test scores. Now, teaching = test scores. Now, learning = test scores. Now, education = test scores.

The authors in Pencils Down take a clear position against standardized tests, arguing against expanding charter schools, busting unions, merit pay, and other popular free-market education policies. This hard-hitting anthology may rail against the high-stakes test, but that doesn’t mean the writers are opposed to assessment or accountability. Many of the articles, essays, and analyses in this collection demonstrate that teaching and learning are more complex than numbers. Pencils Down works to demystify, for readers ranging from teachers to parents at the PTA meeting, the Holy Grail of high-stakes testing.

The first four sections — “Testing, Testing 1,2,3,” “Testing Kids,” “Testing Teaching,” and “Testing the Test” — present critical questions, narratives, and perspectives on the impact that standardized tests have on students, teachers, and classrooms throughout the country. Written in a way that is accessible to both non-educators and educators, the contributions are diverse, including questions and answers about standardized tests, the historical contextualization of assessments as a civil rights issue, strategies to assess what matters, and poignant tales of teachers’ struggles.

In “About Those Tests I Gave You • An Open Letter to My Students” Ruth Ann Dandrea apologizes for the “perpetual and petty testing that has become a fungus on the foot of public education.” Todd Farley’s contribution, “A Test Scorer’s Lament,” invites readers into the “lab” of scoring standardized tests. If scoring open-ended essay prompts is scientifically based research, he writes, “then I’m Dr. Frankenstein.”

Going beyond critiquing and lamenting the impact of tests, the final sections of Pencils Down — “Resisting and Responding to High-Stakes Testing” and "Beyond High-Stakes, Standardized Testing” — offer approaches for creatively complying with or pushing back against testing mandates.

In “’High-Stakes Harm,” Rethinking Schools editors Linda Christensen and Wayne Au explore how teachers can retain a critical stance on assessment while preparing students to take mandated tests. She encourages students to critically examine tests and even construct their own test, using the culture, content and vocabulary used in local communities.

Peggy Robertson, a former schoolteacher and current administrator for the United Opt Out National campaign, describes a movement taking root to stop the harmful effects of extensive standardized testing. She also includes an Opting Students Out of State Test letter template for parents to petition schools to exclude students from taking standardized tests.

So, what are the alternatives to inaction? More pressure that leads to a culture of cheating? The misuse of student scores to evaluate teacher effectiveness? Assessments that do not prepare our youth for 21st-century job skills?

Rethinking Schools should be commended for taking on tests. Pencils Down is a must-read for anyone concerned about providing students with assessments that really matter.