AERA 2019 President Wells Scrutinizes School Testing Policies
AERA 2019 President Wells Scrutinizes School Testing Policies

April 2019

AERA President Amy Stuart Wells

In this year’s Presidential Address, “An Inconvenient Truth About the New Jim Crow of Education,” 2019 AERA President Amy Stuart Wells (Teachers College, Columbia University) scrutinized testing policies in education, suggesting that standardized testing, with its perpetuation of an unequal education system for students of color, is the new “Jim Crow” of education.

The address opened with a 25-minute play, titled Overdrive, about the meaning of standardized tests in the lives of youth. Researched and written by students and performed by the Epic Theater Ensemble, the play portrayed the emotional impact of standardized tests on students, including test-induced anxiety.

The Epic Theater Ensemble 

“Albert Einstein said everybody is a genius, but if you judge a fish by its abilities to climb a tree, it will live its whole life thinking it’s stupid,” said the actors. “These tests are very narrow in terms of measuring the way students think. They only reward students who are very good at that reductive way of thinking.”

Following the play, Wells opened her Presidential Address by calling on the audience to think about how the scholarly professions can work together to address the new “Jim Crow” of education, pointing out “the mismatch between the research evidence and the policies that govern our educational system.”

“This mismatch is a problem for all students and educators, because the rules of our educational system have become toxic to learning, child development, and teacher professionalism,” said Wells.

Wells compared the education system’s reliance on standardized testing as a way of measuring academic success to dependence on fossil fuels, citing former Vice President Al Gore’s well-known documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

“Scores on standardized tests are what it now means to be educated. This is the inconvenient truth of our education system,” said Wells. “What if testing, and the way we have defined accountability in education, is just the latest manifestation of maintaining racial segregation and inequality?”

Citing the report of the Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, Wells said, “Assessment of any kid should be for education and not of education.”

“Standardized tests have never been the best way to measure complex analytical thinking and problem solving,” said Wells. “The way standardized tests are written and given and scored today, they do not have a positive effect on teaching and learning.”

Drawing on her emphasis on the power of multiple modalities, Wells referenced observations made during the play, stating, “Standardized tests punish students for not knowing what someone who does not know them decides they need to know.”

Toward the end of her address, Wells challenged researchers to “reimagine education and how it is measured. We need to reexamine what and who is defined as deviant, and excluded. We need to connect the research to the practice.”

Following Wells’s closing remarks, the audience watched the world premiere of a documentary film by Stanley Nelson, titled Children Left Behind: Time to Reimagine Education. Addressing the interconnectedness of testing, curriculum, discipline, and segregation, the film featured nationally known scholars, including Edmund W. Gordon (Teachers College, Columbia University), discussing the variety of ways in which America’s education system has perpetuated inequality, particularly for students of color.