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Denisha Jones explains here what happened at a televised event in Pittsburgh when she asked candidate Joe Biden if he would eliminate standardized testing. Denisha is a highly accomplished woman and a champion for children.
Biden’s Broken Promise: Time to Opt Out!
On December 14, 2019, I asked President Biden a question about standardized testing. Seeking the Democratic nomination, he had joined other presidential candidates at a Public Education Forum, the creation of a collective of organizations, including the Schott Foundation, Network for Public Education, and Journey for Justice, live-streamed and moderated by MSNBC.
I had all day to frame my question–Biden was last in the lineup. Given the widespread havoc that standardized testing has wreaked, I had to cover a lot of ground. I wanted to demonstrate the negative impact of standardized testing on teacher autonomyand early childhood education. I needed to emphasize the racist history of standardized testing to remind everyone how we got to this point.
“If you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized tests in public schools?” I asked. “Yes,” said Biden. He told me that I was preaching to the choir and assured me that he was well-informed about the over-reliance on standardized tests to evaluate teachers and students. He agreed that we need to give teachers the power to determine the curriculum and build children’s confidence.
“When testing is the measure of whether or not the student is successful…teaching to a standardized test makes no sense,” he said. The question went viral, with many educators hopeful that this dark cloud would finally evaporate under a Biden presidency. At the time, I didn’t believe him, and though I voted for him, I had no faith that he would keep his promise to me and America’s teachers.
I knew that Democrats were too deeply aligned with neoliberal education reform policies to end standardized testing. Some thought otherwise, hoping for a positive influence from Dr. Jill Biden, a teacher. Democratic presidents may publicly speak out against such assessments while filling their administration with people who support them. I remembered that President Obama also had delivered a critique of testing and then ramped it up with his Race to the Top program. Biden could have selected Dr. Leslie Fenwick, with a proven track record against standardized testing, as his Secretary of Education. Instead, he chose a moderate, unknown candidate, Miguel Cardona.
I was right.
On February 22nd, Chalkbeat reported, “States must administer federally required standardized testing this year…” the administration announced. While schools will not be held accountable for scores and can administer the test online and shorten it, states will not receive an exemption through federal waivers.
Of course, when Biden made his promise to me, we had no idea that COVID-19 would upend public education as we know it, plunging teachers, students, and families into the world of remote teaching and learning. Now would be the perfect time for Biden to make good on his promise. Last year’s tests were canceled. As the pandemic rages on and districts struggle to move from remote to hybrid and fully in-person, why should Biden insist on keeping the standardized tests he claimed made no sense in a pre-COVID world?
Everyone is asking me what we should do now. Fortunately, parents and students have an excellent tool at their disposal.They can opt out.
I cannot imagine a more opportune time for parents to refuse to have their children participate in a standardized test. The last thing our children need is the added pressure of a test that won’t count, but they are still required to take. Our focus should be on helping children build the resilience they need, not just tosurvive the trauma from this pandemic but to thrive in this new education landscape. Jesse Hagopian passionately reminds us,
“While corporate education reformers prattle on about a need for more high-stakes testing to evaluate ‘learning loss,’ what students truly require is the redirection of the billions of dollars wasted on the testing-industrial complex toward supporting educators and students: to gain access to COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, and vaccinations, as well as psychologists, nurses, social workers, trauma counselors, after-school programs, restorative justice coordinators, and more.”
Opting out of standardized testing is a parent’s choice and right, despite administrators’ push back. Pre-COVID 19, some schools tried to force children to sit and stare for hours while their classmates took the exam. Now that testing has gone virtual, some parents had to give up their right to opt out when they signed up for online schooling. They can make you logon to the testing platform, but no one can force your child to answer the questions.
I am not alone in my calls for widespread opt out. On Thursday, February 25th, the recently resigned Chancellor of New York City Schools, Richard Carranza, called for parents to refuse the tests. NYC Opt Out and Integrate NYC hosted a town hall to strategize opting out of spring testing. You can sign the Integrate NYC petition here.
Opting out will not hurt schools, but it will hurt the testing corporations, desperate to prove that these assessments can survive in virtual schooling and protect their bottom line. Two years in a row without standardized testing would clear the way to finally dismantle this racist practice–the likely rationale forhis broken promise. The time has come to banish this obsolete relic of a painful past.
For more information on the opt out movement, visit http://www.unitedoptoutnational.org/
You can also read my blog, Five Myths About the Standardized Testing and the Opt Out Movement
Full Text of My Question
Good afternoon. My name is Denisha Jones, and I am the Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Today I’m here representing the Network for Public Education Action, Defending the Early Years, the Badass Teachers Association, and The Black Lives Matter at School Week of Action National Steering Committee.
Teaching has changed drastically over the last 20 years. Instead of being allowed to use their expertise to develop creative,engaging, culturally relevant lessons, teachers are often forced to use a scripted curriculum and move students along even when they need more time. Many teachers feel more like a test prep tutor than a teacher of children and are concerned that both teachers and students are evaluated too heavily based on test scores. Beginning in kindergarten, young children are losing time for play and discovery and instead forced into developmentally inappropriate academic instruction in an effort to get them prepared for tests. Although formal testing does not begin until 3rd grade, younger students are bombarded with practice tests that narrow the curriculum and often leave many of them hating school.
Given that standardized testing is rooted in a history of eugenics and racism, if you are elected president, will you commit to ending the use of standardized tests in public schools?
VIDEO: Watch Biden’s response here.
Denisha Jones is the Director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College. She is a former kindergarten teacher and preschool director who spent the past 17 years in teacher education. Denisha is an education justice advocate and activist. She serves as the Co-Director for Defending the Early Years, the Assistant Executive Director for the Badass Teachers Association, an administrator for United Opt Out National, and the Network for Public Education board. Since 2017, she has served on the national Black Lives Matter at School steering committee. In 2020 she joined the organizing committee for Unite to Save Our Schools. Her first co-edited book, Black Lives Matter at School: An Uprising for Educational Justice, was published in December 2020 by Haymarket Books. She is an attorney.