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Column: I forgive Biden his broken promise on standardized tests — for now

  • Contributor Wayne Gersen in West Lebanon, N.H., on April 12, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 4/1/2021 10:10:18 PM
Modified: 4/1/2021 10:10:14 PM

I started this essay in late February when I learned that President Joe Biden had broken his promise to end standardized testing in public schools. As one who has long decried the misuse of these tests, I was dismayed that he reneged on his pledge to end the use of standardized tests and perplexed at the logic his staff used when they disallowed states from issuing blanket waivers for the tests, something even Betsy DeVos permitted.

The reasons for suspending tests during this year are compelling. We didn’t need to give standardized tests to know that students who had high-speed internet and computers would outperform the students who lacked either. We didn’t need to give tests to know that in-person instruction is superior to remote instruction. We don’t need another round of tests to prove what we already know: Students from well-resourced schools in affluent communities with a good tax base will outperform students from under-resourced schools in poverty-stricken communities with a weak tax base. Some 35 years of lawsuits in New Hampshire are based on that fact. Will taking yet another round of standardized tests in 2021 change the thinking of the New Hampshire Legislature? What, exactly, will more tests tell us?

But the battle over the American Rescue Plan changed my perspective.

A bill that was widely popular among voters in both parties, the plan passed without a single Republican vote in early March. As a result of this purely partisan pushback, I began to appreciate the strong headwinds Biden faced as he tackled a long list of daunting challenges and contentious issues, including:

■ Unity: In the toxic environment in Washington, even Biden’s call for unity in his inauguration speech was seen as “partisan,” GOP heard “unity” as a call for the country to fall in line under the Democrat’s “socialist agenda.” Unity is impossible without bipartisanship, and bipartisanship cannot be achieved as long one party pledges to reject any legislation proposed by the other.

■ Resetting and reforming the economy: The pandemic exposed the deep flaws of our nation’s economy. Economic inequality, the lack of full-time jobs that pay a living wage, the lack of affordable child care, and the lack of affordable health care all predated the pandemic and all undercut the strength of the economy.

■ COVID-19: The previous administration’s decision to politicize the response to the pandemic divided our country at a time when a unified and consistent approach was needed. Instead of following a coherent national policy based on medical science, each state issued varying guidelines on issues like mask-wearing, social distancing and the reopening of schools and businesses. Too often, these guidelines were driven by politics instead of medical advice. In addition to dealing with this disjointed framework, the Biden administration faces challenges in achieving herd immunity since recent polls show that 41% of GOP voters do not intend to get vaccinated.

■ Racism: Racism existed before the pandemic. It is a complicated systemic problem, one that can only be addressed through earnest and honest debates and compromises. Branding COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” conflating Black Lives Matter protests with the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, and passing laws making voter registration more difficult, especially for minorities, make honest discourse about race more difficult.

■ Rebuilding international alliances to solve international problems: Joe Biden needs to mend fences with our allies in order for his administration to address the many complicated interdependent problems that affect everyone in the world. Problems like global climate change, endless wars, refugee crises, authoritarian rule and the erosion of democracy require international solutions and international consensus. America cannot solve any of these problems unilaterally.

■ Restoring faith in government and elections: For more than 40 years we’ve heard that government is the problem. Since the middle of last year we’ve heard that elections are rigged. Without faith in the government’s ability to help solve problems and without trust in the results of elections, democracy cannot survive.

■ Fallout from the Jan. 6 riot: The investigation of the storming of the Capitol is fraught with political peril. The gathering of evidence for the trials of those who participated, and the trials themselves, will keep them in the news cycle — and those in the House and Senate who believe the election was stolen will fan any flames of doubt or discontent.

■ Immigration: When Central American refugees sensed that new leadership in Washington might lead to less restrictive entry into the U.S., refugees seeking asylum began moving north. Biden’s early executive orders reinforced that notion. As a result, immigration is an urgent — and divisive — crisis.

■ Guns: In the wake of two horrific shootings, the highly contentious issue of gun violence requires immediate attention.

Given this list of tough challenges and highly partisan issues, I understand why Biden decided to break his promise on standardized testing. The Every Student Succeeds Act, the law that requires states to administer standardized tests, was the last piece of truly bipartisan legislation. In December 2015 it passed in the House in a 359-64 vote, and the Senate with an 85-12 vote. It is not surprising that an experienced politician like Biden decided to break his promise on an issue that both parties supported, especially since the American Rescue Act provides a huge influx of cash for public schools.

The Every Student Succeeds Act is up for reauthorization shortly though, and when it is considered in Congress I will finish my essay urging the Biden administration to offer a new means of accountability besides standardized tests. We need something else as the primary metric of “success” for students and schools. The issues on the list above, though, are far more urgent and important at this point.

For now, I forgive Joe Biden for breaking his promise to end standardized tests.

Wayne Gersen, of Etna, is the former superintendent of the Dresden School District.

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