Could the era of high-stakes tests be coming to an end?

Billy Townsend

Billy Townsend

Billy Townsend

Last month, Ron DeSantis turned heretic. Without any warning, the 2024 GOP presidential hopeful publicly trashed the Republican education policy scripture Jeb Bush wrote 25 years ago.

He joined U.S. president Joe Biden in publicly rejecting the cornerstone of America’s dying “education reform” movement: the big money, high-stakes, end-of-year, badly designed, standardized test. 

Bipartisan/institutional American power has used these tests to label and punish American children, teachers, parents, schools, and communities for a generation, with no measurable or perceivable life benefit. 

In Florida, we call this test the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).

Ironically, in killing the FSA, DeSantis and his pro-test Education Commissioner Richard Corcoran used the language teacher unions and Opt-Out activists and public school advocates have used for years and years. – “I want more learning and less test prep,” DeSantis said.

“From April to May, we basically shut down schools for testing,” said Corcoran, who also called the Florida test he championed for years “archaic.” For Corcoran particularly, this is the equivalent of a Wall Street investment banker publicly repudiating capital as “archaic.”

In theory, the massive testing period near the end of the year will be replaced by three “progress monitoring” windows during the school year. Everyone in the state will use an as-yet unbuilt state-owned, state-run assessment platform.

But the policy detail is actually much less important than the political rhetoric this time. 

With Joe Biden rejecting the current use of high stakes testing during his campaign; and DeSantis rejecting “test prep” and the experience of testing in Florida, the autopilot awfulness of American test-based “reform education” has lost all organized political support. It has enormous unelected money to sustain the inertia for a while. But, I believe, it is doomed. 

“Absolutely central” 

To understand what an earthquake this announcement was for the Florida Model of education, which has set the toxic American “education reform” template for a generation, you shouldn’t look to me. 

Listen to a smart champion of “reform” and the Florida Model instead.

Travis Pillow long worked as a top editor — and by far the smartest voice — for ReDefined, the Florida-based “choice” PR/media shop. ReDefined is funded by Step Up for Students, the massive “charity” that doles out Florida’s various vouchers. Now he writes for an “education reform” site called the “Center on Reinventing Public Education.” Here’s what Travis tweeted after the DeSantis announcement. It’s completely accurate:

“The biggest piece I think non-Floridians (and some Floridians) are missing in this news is how absolutely central A-F school grades are to so many facets of our state’s education policy and how critical it will be to make sure test data can still be relied upon for them.”

As Travis understands, wiping out the FSA wipes out the functional totality of the elementary school grade formula. And it wipes out huge chunks of the middle, high school, and overall district grades. It requires Florida to completely rebuild the grade system, almost from scratch. This includes the basic legal definition of words like “growth” and “achievement” in a way that the “data” from an as-yet unbuilt state progress monitoring platform can feed. 

The FSA is also the basis of Florida’s cruel and educationally unsound 3rd grade retention policies, for which there is no supportive research, and which exists only to pump student scores on another big national test, the 4th grade NAEP. 

Indeed, Florida’s school grades have been entirely political tools and destructive frauds since the day they were introduced after Jeb’s election in 1998. They have been used to advance the privatization agenda by driving public school children into un-FSA-tested, ungraded voucher schools. 

As documented by the Orlando Sentinel, untested voucher schools are a temporary escape from Florida’s “test-and-punish” model. It’s one reason Florida’s low income voucher program has a 61 percent 2-year program dropout rate. Take away the test-and-punish experience – with its punishments for the children and schools of low capital communities — and vouchers will be much much harder to sell. The “choice” industry grift depends almost entirely on negative marketing about public schools. Gameable school grades that cause harsh human punishments are a huge part of that.

Thus, Corcoran’s claim that nothing in Florida’s “accountability” system will change is absurd on its face.

Humane public education: an untapped political force

So why is De Santis eliminating the tests that Florida Republicans have embraced for so long? Political self-interest is the likeliest answer.

I suspect that universal dislike of Florida/American test culture is why DeSantis targeted it at the worst and deadliest moments of Florida’s Delta surge. I suspect DeSantis correctly judged that the announcement would be a popular way to change the subject from COVID and his other bad news. Public education advocates should internalize that in considering the popularity of our issues.

None of us know what’s coming next in Florida. We know that Florida’s “accountability” experience will change; but we don’t know it will improve.

Will the end-of-year system simply be replaced by computer-based packages like the NWEA? Will the results still be used to rate schools based on “growth” and hold young children back? That’s entirely possible; and we must fight against malicious interests to win the rebuilding after the FSA collapses.

With that in mind, I doubt any political statement in America would poll better than this across the partisan, ideological and racial spectrum: “I want a school system that treats my child as a human being to develop to his or her fullest, not a piece of data to sell.”

DeSantis’ rejection of Jeb’s rhetoric and record marked a big political step in that direction – the single largest step of my adult lifetime.

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