Friday, February 2, 2024

Pandemic Testophilia

For one brief, shining moment, even Betsy DeVos almost got it. In the spring of 2020, as the nation grappled with the realization that a couple weeks of lockdown were not going to get us past COVID-19, DeVos made one of her rare uses of the Us Department of Education's authority to offer a blanket waiver for states to skip the Big Standardized Test mandate. 

“Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time. Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment,” she said. Which was close to the truth that students and teachers simply had more important stuff to worry about. 

For a few moments, back before the pandemic became a political football, most of the country grasped that there were more important things for schools to be focused on than the annual Rite of Testage. 

But by the fall of 2020, the moment had passed. The BS Test would be required, DeVos declared, And the entire world of testophiles was poised to make sure that the pandemic interruption would be brief. Within a year, Learning Loss had been weaponized to help drive a sense of urgency that we had better get back to full on testing Right Now, and somehow this was all taken seriously despite the fact that it was all based on data from folks who make their living selling test materials. It was as if a blue ribbon panel of heroin addicts and dealers announced that the nation has a terrible heroin shortage.

Testophiles in the media have helped to feed the manufactured sense of urgency. The New York Times has always loved it some BS Test mandates. It's a leading manufacturer of NAEP panic, with absurd declarations that "the pandemic erased two decades of progress in math and reading." It's a foolish claim for a variety of reasons, but it fully captures the notion that schools exist not to provide an education for students, but to crank out annual scores, like some sort of BS Test stock market. 

They are still at it, with a new article about a "surprising" rebound for students (who is surprised, other than people like the Times that tried to rouse test support by screaming about a "crisis"), an article that does not actually look at students at all, but focuses on test scores, using charts that absurdly render test scores as years "behind" and talking to corporate testocrats like Thomas Kane and Margaret Spellings. 

Nothing has changed about testophilia in the last twenty-some years. It still assumes that the most important focus of education is the cranking out of Big Standardized Test scores. It is still a narrow, cramped, meager view of education. It is still the greatest toxic force in the country's public schools. 

Testophilia reduces everything not-on-the-test to secondary importance in schools, organizing priorities not around educational richness or variety or depth, but around what is on the BS Test.

Testophilia has reconfigured and gutted the teaching of English, producing a generation of students who haven't read entire works of literature because they've been too busy reading short context-free excerpts and answering sets of reading "skills" multiple choice questions.

BS Testing gets us scripting and lockstep instruction and teacher-proof canned curriculum which are all not so much about education as they are about training students to get better scores on the tests.

And in the post-pandemic world, we face a generation of children who have been through a variety of disruptive events and displayed a variety of results including rampant absenteeism and in-school misbehavior, and testophilia insists that of all the challenges faces students, the one we should be focusing on is their test scores. 

And none of this is what parents want for their children or students want for themselves. Former students talk to me often; none of them say, "Boy, what I really treasure from my time in your class is that work we did to get ready for the state test." No parent says, "I hope that my child can learn to be happy and productive and feel smart and brave and just generally become their best self, but none of that is as important to me as making sure that they do well on that state test."

If it seems as if I'm saying the same things about the Big Standardized Test that I've been saying for years--well, I am, and so are others. Dammit, Daniel Koretz's 2018 book The Testing Charade ought to be out of date and it's not. But testocrats and testophiles are pumping out the same old baloney, still insisting that we can't possibly know how students are doing without test results (except that one, tests don't tell us what they claim to, and two, they don't tell us anything we can't learn other, better ways). Gosh, they still say, test results help us focus resources where they're needed (except that one, they mostly don't and two, the resources they do focus are aimed at test scores). 

Test results will help teachers teach, and tell parents the Truth about how their students are really doing. Except that the data generated in vague and minimall and, in most cases, way too late to be useful. 

We get the same bullshit about how lower test scores mean lower life earnings and the education that the BS Test allegedly measures will somehow fix economic inequality (it won't). Or we get new bullshit about how we will reduce testing by doing more testing (a variation on the old "sure, we'll deprioritize this but not really").

Yes, sure, the BS Test has its place, perhaps, as one more measure in a robust and balanced multi-pronged assessment system, one data point among others. But we are so far from that, so very very far from that, like someone siting in Capetown arguing, "Yeah, under certain circumstances this could be a stop on the road from Cleveland to Seattle." 

I hate that we're still here, hate that we've now been at it so long that a generation of students have grown up and gone to teacher school thinking that test-centered schools are normal, hate that folks who want to dismantle public education can point to what the BS Test has done to public schools as a selling point for vouchers. I hate that testophilia has empowered bad school administrators and made it some kind of radical stance in some schools to want to offer students a full rich education. I hate most of all how testophiles and testocrats have dehumanized education, treating what is most rich and rewarding and joyful and humane about education as some sort of irrelevant and distracting because it's not On The Test, hate that at this moment of crisis and opportunity when students need a more humane educational system, the testophiles are out there screaming, "no, no, don't do that! Get back over to that testing stuff!" I hate that it has changed--for the worse-- the whole idea of what school is for.

Schools and students and teachers have more important things to be focused on than the Big Standardized Test. If only policymakers could realize that. 


  1. Well said. I share your frustration. Even though there remains zero evidence that testing and privatization improve education, both march ahead because they are supported by the wealthy that can buy political will.

  2. Amen! Yesterday I was in a data meeting for an hour and half. Luckily the testing did have a purpose because we have Title 1 teachers now for my grade and kids who need extra help can get it. But there was still a lot of bs using “growth” models.

  3. Having witnessed the detrimental effects of a test-focused education system firsthand, I couldn't agree more with the sentiment that there are far more important priorities for students, teachers, and schools, especially in the wake of a global crisis like the pandemic. The passion and urgency conveyed here are palpable, serving as a poignant reminder of the need to shift our educational focus towards what truly matters for the holistic development and well-being of our students.