Legacy of Standardization: Curriculum and Testing

by: Mary Parr-Sánchez

Part 1

As a middle school history, civics, geography, and service-learning teacher for 25 years, I taught prior to and during the peak of the standardization era launched by the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). As such, I witnessed first-hand the transformation and domination of student assessments on teaching, standardized curriculum, and learning. I witnessed this as a parent to four children that moved through the changes the “accountability” movement forced onto educators and students.   


Prior to NCLB, standardized assessments were given to students only in 4th, 8th, and 11th grades, not every single year from kindergarten through twelfth grade like they are now. NCLB legislation ushered in an era of so-called “accountability” that changed how educators and the public thought about measuring student growth. We moved from looking at what students could do or had learned, into measuring what students did not know or what they could ­notdo – the now-infamous deficit approach.  We collectively found 139 ways for schools to not meet “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP).  I remember 5 full years where the biggest topic in professional development was moving the “bubble kids” (who were close to moving from nearing proficiency to proficient). 


I am an educator that thrived during a time when innovation, creativity, teamwork, inclusiveness, and initiative were nurtured, encouraged, and valued in educators.  We had the independence and autonomy to create learning environments that weren’t solely driven by testing and accountability.  My love and passion for teaching and learning began to die, bit by bit, as the accountability narrative dominated and diminished many of the learning experiences that we could offer children in schools.


Our awareness of this paradigm shift from focusing and resourcing inputs (teaching and learning) to focusing on outputs (assessment) is especially critical in a state like New Mexico, where a majority of the population come from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds, and many speak a language other than English at home. Instead of leaning into the opportunity to cultivate a biliterate citizenry versed in locally-relevant history, language, and culture, we chose a different path – a standardized path – as a nation.  After more than twenty years of focusing on achievement as arbitrarily measured by standardized tests results, we don’t need more testing to “help us identify gaps” that are and have always been obvious to educators and others who work closely with students and school communities. What we truly need is 1) flexibility to work with our students and communities, 2) authority to implement changes that benefit both educators and students, and 3) leadership opportunities that are entrusted to educators who work directly with students. As all educators know, getting to know a child and watching them grow and learn is the best part of being a teacher. 


During the 20+ years of standardized testing dominance, there has been no room for using assessment as an instrument of learning in and of itself. Assessments could serve to continue learning if students were asked to apply what they have learned to the in-depth study of a societal problem, the maintenance and reflection upon a portfolio of findings and research, and a final demonstration of learning to family and school community. The past twenty years of investment in a standardized curriculum and testing have left little room for recognizing the abstract or not easily measured skills and capacities like creativity, collaboration, or commitment that such an assessment would highlight. Nevertheless, years of effort from NEA and our partners advocating for educators’ liberation from the yoke of restrictive and ineffective standardized assessments are finally bearing fruit. A new era of future-focused education is on the horizon, and it is our hope that educators will once again be able to exercise creativity in designing assessments that are tailored to what a child is interested in learning and what a child has learned.


What if a collaborative and creative project that involved students’ families and communities drove the curriculum instead of a standardized assessment?  How would schools be different?  How would teacher and student learning be different?


A “Capstone project” or “project-based assessment” is one alternative to standardized testing that is experiencing a renaissance in recent years. An extension of the increasingly popular and research-supported “project-based learning” approach to curriculum design, capstone projects encourage students to take a hands-on approach to applying what they have learned across a unit or an entire year to an in-depth exploration of the subject area. These project-based assessments present students with an opportunity to focus on aspects of a subject that are particularly interesting or personally meaningful to them and employ creativity in demonstrating their understanding, while collaborating closely with classmates. The benefits of capstone projects are multitude: they provide students with real-life experiences and allow them to apply what they’ve learned to issues in their own communities, they give students choice and improve engagement and motivation, and they give students opportunities to demonstrate skills and interests that would not otherwise be recognized. While replacing standardized assessments with project-based assessments and other alternatives will be no easy feat, NEA firmly believes that the benefits to students, educators, and school communities would be astronomical.


My next article will be about how we need to collectively advocate for autonomy in our classrooms, resources to flow teaching and learning and not standardized testing.