By Denise Collier, Rosita Apodaca, Glenn Nolly

Institute for Learning

In the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic and related school closures have upended the educational apple cart for school leaders, teachers, students, and their families. Our methods of working with each other and with students had to adapt, our understanding of student engagement was challenged, the importance of relationships was brought to the fore, and the realities of educational inequities were illuminated in stark new ways.

But with these challenges came new opportunities: a chance to rethink how we do our work, to revisit what is most important, and a rare opportunity to examine some of our practices and priorities in fundamental ways. We believe there is a need to examine the impact of standardized testing on teaching, learning, and equity, and we propose 6 things to rethink as we design the new post-pandemic normal.

Why is our educational system so invested in and reliant on standardized testing?

Since the advent of the standards-based reform movement in the early 1990’s, standardized testing systems have become the primary indicator of school quality and student performance. Standardized testing systems, and the learning standards they assess, vary from state-to-state but tend to share some common features: metrics for rating and ranking schools and districts, public reporting of results, systems for rewards and interventions, and a range of consequences for poor performance (Fuhrman and Elmore, 2004; Supovitz, 2009). Individual test-based consequences may include student course failure or graduation denial, teacher and principal pay for performance, and dismissal or transfer of teachers and principals for high failure rates. Organizational consequences may include sanctions applied to schools or districts, such as state “take over” and accreditation denial. School and district ratings can also impact community perceptions of the educational quality in ways that influence political and personal choices (Herman, 2004).

It is our contention, based on our research-informed work in schools and classrooms, that however well-intended, the current system of rewards and sanctions tied to test scores has had an increasingly negative, chilling effect on access to the kinds of meaningful, high-quality learning experiences that are most needed to prepare learners for success in life and help them realize their own aspirations. We further contend that this unintended effect has the most direct impact on students of color, those impacted by poverty, and multi-language learners who enter school with a need to add English proficiency necessary for success in an English-dominant environment. One indicator of this disparate impact is the lack of overall progress and persistent score gap between racial, ethnic, and poverty groups on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam. Students across all ethnic groups posted lower results in 2019 than in 2017 in 4th grade reading and 8th grade reading and math, particularly affecting African American students, Hispanic students, and students from low-income families (Southern Education Center, 2020, p. 1).

We deeply believe assessment plays a pivotal role in ensuring equitable access to high-quality learning for every student and using a variety of assessments—including broad-scale tests that assess learning within and across states—is important.  But high-stakes testing has become such an overriding part of the landscape in schools and districts that, “like the wallpaper in the room, we have almost become blind to our inordinate focus on them and to the unintended harmful outcomes this type of testing can have on teaching and learning in our schools” (Collier, 2012, p. 27).

The post-pandemic new normal for schooling presents the opportunity to revisit high-stakes testing and make proper use of it so that preparation for the state test does not become the curriculum. Here are six actions that would not take us back to where we were before the pandemic but instead catapult us into a more equitable, student-centered, high quality, thinking curriculum.

Rethinking the
“old normal”

Before Pandemic
After Pandemic

Narrowing the curriculum to tested subjects and grade levels

Broaden and enrich the curriculum for every student

Parsing learning standards into isolated bits of knowledge

Coalesce learning standards into core disciplinary concepts that make sense to learner

Over reliance on teacher directed, test-like practices

Rely on student-centered approaches to advance learning and engagement

Preponderance of low-level tasks

Build the curriculum around cognitively demanding tasks

Absence of student and teacher voice

Engage student and teacher voice, choice, and agency in learning

Curriculum void of students’ funds of knowledge

Students’ funds of knowledge visible in the curriculum


As school and district leaders rethink the new normal, we suggest these might be important shifts to make as we move toward the “new normal.”

1. Broaden and enrich the curriculum for every student

 Narrowing the curriculum to focus on tested content in non-challenging artificial, worksheet-type learning scenarios can have the opposite effect on learning than the one for which we are striving. As Lori Shepard noted in a 2021 podcast, “focus on reading and math tests…has caused social studies and science, art and music to virtually disappear from the curriculum” (National Education Policy Center, 2021). Yet we know that students prosper best in a broad, rich curriculum that speaks to their academic college/career needs and to their interests and personal and cultural identities. There is nothing more inequitable than depriving the most vulnerable students of activities that develop their reasoning and identity. Schools and districts that are fostering equity might revisit their courses and curricular offerings to make sure the test is not high-jacking the rest.

2. Coalesce learning standards into core disciplinary concepts that make sense to learners

Standards are the foundation of the assessment systems states use to measure success, so it follows that standards should articulate fully and clearly what is most important for students to learn. Too often, standards that call for high-level reasoning are omitted from state tests in favor of simpler cognitive processes that can be assessed in multiple choice formats (Olson, 2003).  And we know that not all learning standards are created equally; some carry more weight than others. Cracking them apart into tiny testable bits impedes sense making. Reexamining standards charts, pacing guides, and related tools could reveal the extent to which disciplinary understandings and standards priorities are clear.

3. Rely on student-centered approaches to advance learning and engagement

 Test-prep practices may advance testing skills and perhaps test scores, but it is unlikely they will advance learning in ways that develop deep understandings over time or advance student agency in learning. When students experience learning through student-centered approaches geared to their cognitive, social, and emotional needs, they are more likely to succeed across a variety of measures, including standardized tests. Adopting a core set of proven student-centered approaches that teachers and learners can rely on over time can establish a foundation for deep learning and open opportunities for more equitable access and engagement.

4. Build the curriculum around cognitively demanding tasks

 When teachers match teaching to state tests, “students are likely to experience far more facts and routines than conceptual understanding and problem-solving” (Resnick & Zurawsky, 2002, p. 8). But, if we teach a meaningful curriculum geared to rigorous standards, and if all students regularly engage in challenging and personally relevant learning tasks from kindergarten through high school, then they are much more likely to be prepared for college, work, and life and, also, possess the skills and habits of practice needed to pass exams. Examining curriculum frameworks and resources for the types of texts, tasks, and thinking they require of students could reveal areas for improvement.

5. Engage student and teacher voice, choice, and agency in learning

Overreliance on test results above all other priorities can have an alienating effect on learners. Student engagement is elevated when students know the “why, how, and what” of their learning and have some say in determining it. Just as with adults, students know when they are authentically engaged in their work. Engaging students as co-managers of their learning and of the learning community can look like student choice in texts/tasks, students co-developing curriculum units, and students establishing social routines and contracts for ways of working in the classroom. Focusing on instructional practices and learning opportunities that socialize intelligence advances learning and creates the habits of practice needed for future learning and success.

Overreliance on test results can also have an alienating effect on teachers, impeding commitment to and engagement in their work. Teachers know their discipline, and they also know when they are being engaged in authentic ways as decision-makers in their work. Developing teacher agency in the real work of schooling develops shared understanding and advances coherence. Engaging teachers in policy development, curriculum design, improvement planning, assessment development, peer coaching, and the like advances the work and deepens shared commitment.

6. Students’ funds of knowledge visible in the curriculum

Inviting students’ and their families’ practices and lived experiences into the curriculum validates the students’ identities and provides a bridge from out of school into the classroom. Accurate knowledge of students allows teachers to draw on student experiences and priorities in schooling. This equity-centered approach engages students and boosts learning and achievement. It is an intervention aimed at combating deficit thinking in education that typically privileges white culture.  Researchers argue that “students, especially minority students, will succeed to the extent that household and community participation is encouraged as an integral component of their education.”

In summary, we think it is time to abandon practices that national and international data show are not preparing students for college, career, or community. Instead, we argue that we seize the current opportunity to reset.


Collier, D. (2012). Finding the Goldilocks solution to curriculum and instruction in the era of high-stakes standardized testing. Insight: Texas Association of School Administrators, 27(2), 27-29.

Esteban-Guitart, M., & Moll, L. C. (2014). Funds of Identity: A new concept based on the Funds of Knowledge approach. Culture and Psychology, 20(1), 31-48.

Fuhrman, S.H. & Elmore, R.F. (2004). Introduction. In Susan H. Fuhrman and Richard F. Elmore, (Eds.). Redesigning accountability systems for education, 3-14. New York: Teachers College Press.

Herman, J. L. (2004). The effects of testing on instruction. In Susan H. Fuhrman and Richard F. Elmore, (Eds.). Redesigning accountability systems for education, 141-166. New York: Teachers College Press.

Popham, J. (1999). Why standardized tests don’t measure educational quality. Educational Leadership, 56(6), 8-15.

Resnick, L. and Zurawsky, C. (2005). Standards-based reform and accountability: Getting back on course. American Educator: American Federation of Teachers, pp. 1-13.

Rios- Aguilar. (2010). Measuring funds of knowledge: Contributions to Latina/o students’ academic and nonacademic outcomes. Teachers College Record 112(8), 2209-2257

Shepard, L. (2021). NEPC Talks Education: An Interview with Lorrie Shepard About Standardized Testing Policy. Podcast:

Southern Education Foundation. (2020). 2019 NAEP Report Card Analysis. [White Paper].

Supovitz, J., (2009). Can high stakes testing leverage educational improvement? Prospects from the last decade of testing and accountability reform. The Journal of Educational Change, 10(2), 211-227.