Schools are starting back up, and parents are worrying about everything we normally worry about in this day and age—homework, eating, sleeping, study help, school shootings, and their health. 

Here in my county in Florida, we’re struggling to act normal as the state rips our funding from us because our Board of Education voted to mandate masks in our schools for eight weeks—in direct defiance of our governor’s executive order. Even with masks, scores of kids are getting sick, and hundreds are in quarantine at any given time. Without the digital option this year, those kids are missing valuable lessons taught by valuable teachers in real time.

What is going to happen to those kids? Really, to all the kids, since it’s becoming apparent that at some point or another, nearly every one of them will be sick or quarantined before the year is out?

 Put your attention where it belongs

How can we make sure they are getting the education they deserve? For starters, the state could turn their attention away from this tit-for-tat punitive lawsuit-happy fight over public health and start looking at the useless nature of state-required testing.

These tests have been the bane of teachers’ existence for 20 years now, but this year in particular, they’re going to be egregious. What will they be able to measure, with kids in and out of the hallowed halls and teachers just trying to survive the year? Will they measure how many kids were able to show up the majority of the time and pay attention to the minutiae of how to correctly fill in a ScanTron bubble? That’s about all they’ll be good for.

 The testing problem

In 2020, Florida and many other states discontinued the standardized tests due to the coronavirus, and in 2021, Florida experienced 10 percent drop in student competency in math, at least according to those silly scores. Our standardized testing scores last year were lower across all subjects and across counties. Why? Because these tests don’t work. They never have. But the pandemic lays that fact bare.

Teaching testing, not subjects

Year after year, teachers have had to interrupt their lesson plans to devote class time to helping students learn how to read the irregular language of these tests. They’ve given up days and weeks of actual interesting, important and integrated learning to facilitate rote memorization and reach strange, unattached-to-life benchmarks.

Since 2002, when No Child Left Behind passed, state tests have been the benchmark for schools, teachers, counties and states. How well our students do on these tests determines how well they’ll do in life, what colleges they are eligible for, and how much funding the schools will get as a result. 

They determine whether or not a teacher will be asked to return the next year. They are the end-all, be-all of our school system, much to the chagrin and aggravation of parents, teachers and administrators alike.

 A flawed theory

The idea was that we could bring every child to the same standard of learning by giving them the same standard of test and making sure they could pass that test. But many can’t. Because kids are individuals and circumstances are different for everyone. And for these 20 years, we’ve been punishing schools and teachers when students cannot pass these tests, which, opposite to what the name specifically states, leaves many children behind.

We have long bemoaned these tests as useless, and I can show how they hinder actual learning with personal experience, as students miss main building blocks in favor of memorizing test question formations.

Our children managed without tests last year, our schools are still going on. We’re proving, due to an emergency, that these tests aren’t important. If we use them at all, we need to use them to allocate more to our schools and teachers, not less.

 Getting it right

Thankfully, Florida is one of a few states that changed the way the tests will count. In fact, for the first time in years, lower scores will be tied to more resources instead of teacher and school district punishment. For the second year in a row, my children will train to take tests that are no longer tied to school funding, teacher and administrator evaluation or student promotion.

And these tests should not be tied to any of those things. Which means that these tests should not exist.

 Let’s move on

Now is the time to dismantle a 20-year experiment that never worked. We are busy as a society, dealing with a deadly pandemic, a new work environment, financial strain, and more. 

So, instead of testing our students year after year on how many grapes Bobby has left if he has 80 percent of a full circle in Alabama while two trains run in opposite directions, let’s go back to teaching our children in interesting, fruitful, individualized ways that work, that make our students feel like important human beings.

They won’t suffer for it. They may even thrive. But, certainly, it can’t get worse than our experiment with standardized testing has.

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About Darlena Cunha

Darlena Cunha is an adjunct professor of journalism at the University of Florida and freelance writer whose work appears in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic and more.

View all posts by Darlena Cunha