Charlotte-Mecklenburg (NC) Superintendent Heath Morrison along with Montgomery County Schools (MD) Superintendent Joshua Starr has challenged the costs of pursuing once again new standards and (more) state high-stakes tests:

“‘I am very troubled by the amount of testing we are being asked to do,’ Morrison told The Charlotte Observer editorial board. ‘We can teach our way to the top, but we cannot test our way to the top. We’re getting ready in the state of North Carolina to put out 177 new exams.'”

Begun in the early 1980s, an accountability era has entrenched standards and high-stakes testing in education so deeply that few are willing or capable of stepping back from these practices in order to consider the incredible costs in time and funding that standards- and test-based school reform incur despite a record of failure each time that paradigm is retooled.

While Starr has received national and warranted praise for his call to institute a moratorium on high-stakes testing, Morrison’s challenges signal an important opportunity to examine how test-based education reform is particularly caustic in the high-poverty South.

Southern Inequity: Reflected and Perpetuated in High-Stakes Testing

Two facts about standardized testing are both clear and disturbing: (1) Standardized testing became woven into the fabric of schooling in the early decades of the 20th century, and (2) data from testing are more often misused than understood accurately.

These facts became intensified once standardized tests evolved into high-stakes testing—first as data points to hold students (exit exams for graduation) and schools (school report cards for public display) accountable after A Nation at Risk misrepresented test scores and turned every politician in the U.S. into an education reformer, and then as federal policy in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the more recent Race to the Top and NCLB waivers, adding teacher accountability to the mix.

For a century now, politicized education has chosen the efficiency of standardized testing over the instructionally effective assessment and feedback endorsed by educators. Yet, standardized tests remain the root cause of reflecting and perpetuating inequity, instead of a mechanism for eradicating inequity through teaching and learning.

I applaud Starr’s call for a moratorium as well as Morrison’s concerns about the costs and misuse of testing, but neither are going far enough—particularly in the South where poverty and social/educational inequity are far greater problems than the quality of standards and tests. Standardized testing fails education in the following ways:

• Standardized tests remain more strongly correlated with out-of-school factors than student learning or teacher/school quality. Class, race, and gender biases have yet to be erased from testing.

• Assigning high-stakes to standardized tests further erodes their value since those high-stakes encourage teaching to the test and simplistic conclusions drawn from complex data.

• Any test score is by its nature reductive, taking complex conditions and reducing them to one number.

The essential flaws with high-stakes standardized tests are magnified in states shackled by social inequity and poverty because tests function as gatekeepers (for example, the SAT) and mechanisms for educational inequity: Children born into poverty are tested, labeled, and then sorted into a educational system that reflects and perpetuates that inequity.

For decades now, ample evidence shows that test-based accountability labels high-poverty schools as failures and affluent schools as successful. Any deviations from these patterns are rare and outliers.

The central problem in education is the same as in society, inequity of opportunity.

One of the great ironies of the education reform agenda is that calling for new standards and tests is further entrenching the status quo. Voices such as those by Starr and Morrison are rare opportunities to change, to step back from tests that fail children, teachers, schools, and society.

Instead of test-based accountability, public education reform needs equity- and opportunity-based transparency: Are schools and every classroom providing all students an equity of opportunity to learn?

Continuing to focusing on tests and seeking new and better tests are commitments to distracting society and education from addressing the real and systemic problems facing both. America’s test-mania is a test we are failing.

Especially in the South, investing in new and more high-stakes standardized testing is a failure we can no longer afford.