Opinion: Only through lens of high-stakes testing is virus a dire education crisis

Professor: Doubling down on ‘diagnostics’ and  ‘aggressive remediation’ just benefits testing industry

Stephanie Jones is a Josiah Meigs Distinguished Teaching Professor at the University of Georgia in the department of Educational Theory and Practice. She teaches courses on teachers as writers, feminist theory and pedagogy, social class and poverty, early childhood education, and literacy.

In a guest column today, Jones says doubling down on “diagnostics” and “aggressive remediation” will benefit no one except testing corporations, technology companies, and publishing houses who sell products to diagnose, remediate, and evaluate every stride in a fictional data-led race to nowhere.

You can read an earlier piece by her here.

By Stephanie Jones

Some crises are real and extremely difficult to prevent and respond to, like a highly contagious virus that is easily spread throughout communities.

Other crises are human-created, easily preventable and also easily eliminated, like worrying about what students’ test scores in reading and math will be when they return to school.

Almost any teacher will tell you that the current tool of choice to attempt to measure student learning and teacher effectiveness - high-stakes testing - has distorted the purposes and possibilities of public education beyond recognition.

Decades of research on assessment and testing back-up and validate their perceptions of tests, painting a very clear picture that high-stakes testing does extensive damage and provides very little helpful information. 

This is critical for all of us (parents, community members, educators, leaders) to remember in this moment because we are hearing more crisis language about students “falling behind” during the pandemic school closures. But this particular “crisis” is only possible in a world of high-stakes testing. In other words, the tool that humans have created and continue to use to try to measure student learning created this crisis of falling behind.

Take for example the alarmist tone and language of the recent editorial essay in The New York Times "The Coronavirus's Lost Generation of Children" (the original headline on Twitter) and similar pieces that weaponize the very language and metaphors tied to testing and have been used to dehumanize education for 20 years.

Words they use -- setbacks, losses, grim, disastrous, catastrophic, “hobble an entire generation,” aggressive remedial plans -- are irresponsible and panic-inducing during our country’s biggest health, economic, and social crisis in a lifetime.

These words also spin the ideological web that education is a race. One obvious problem with a race metaphor is that some people win races and some people lose races, which also means that some people are "ahead" in the race and some people will always be "behind."

Credit: Chad Osburn

Credit: Chad Osburn

Richard Rothstein's recent essay is more reasonable in tone, pointing to the fact that unprecedented social and economic inequalities have created many of the differences in educational opportunities and academic "achievement" to begin with – before the pandemic. He argues for enhancing extra-curricular opportunities and the arts in education when schools reopen to diminish such differences. Having more robust, creative, and rich in-school educational experiences should have been a priority before the widespread shut-down of schools, but it will be even more important to prioritize when schooling resumes some semblance of normalcy.

To do so will mean that focusing on tools that attempt to quantify student learning – such as high-stakes tests - will have to be put on the backburner, or eliminated entirely (which would, in the process, help with budgeting issues too since tests are expensive).

Across 13 of the most precious and important years of their lives, students are pushed, prodded, measured, diagnosed, remediated, and shoved into tiny boxes labeled in ways that will follow them through high school and even beyond. These diagnostic tests, and tests of every other name and kind, generate numbers that people call quantitative data. The fantastical language of “data” has exerted a seductive power over otherwise reasonable people in the last twenty years.

You think generating the data of county, state, and national confirmed cases of coronavirus and deaths caused by Covid-19 is difficult? It seems difficult at least, with all the changing and contradictory numbers every day and investigations into how people are recording a cause of death for individual people.

To be fair, I am a researcher so I know how complex even very seemingly simple “counts” of phenomena are so I’m being a bit facetious here. But that’s the point, even keeping a very simple “count” of seemingly very straightforward facts can be far more complex than what one sees on the surface.

At least it is possible, however, to believe that quantifying the number of cases of coronavirus can show some version of a truth. The test results are fairly straightforward and they can be counted, beginning with number one.

Some things, however, cannot be quantified and to do so does great damage to them.

Try quantifying the beautiful and complex process of a child learning to read, a teenager conducting oral histories in a community, students organizing a group against gun violence in schools, a young person building a video game related to a science concept, a sophisticated conversation about the racism and classism produced in a film and the similarities to their school, a group of children creating an elaborate game that include all the features of the best novel writing, a class harvesting vegetables from their school garden, or a spoken word performance that gives you goosebumps.

These are some of the many things that students do and learn in their school experiences that can never be captured in the diagnostic tests that have taken over schools, or the standardized tests they prepare for all year, or the teacher evaluation scores, or the school rankings.

Try quantifying what our youth are learning now about viral spread, the language of epidemiology, the politicized and unequal nature of our healthcare system, the economics of job loss and the role of state and federal governments in providing incomes, and the importance of understanding math to critique and analyze the numbers being used to tell stories about the pandemic.

Children and adolescents are also learning and living grief and confinement, the dynamics of movement and mobility, and some are learning and living tragedy, mental and physical crises, even existential crises.

Some are learning to cook, sew, garden, play games, ride a bike, explore streams, walk in the woods, tell stories, write letters, care for siblings, sing songs, make films, dance dances, paint, fix things, organize things, fish, mow lawns, plant flowers, climb trees, build furniture, train pets, do cartwheels, watch birds, play a new sport, entertain themselves, imagine and pretend, and so many other things.

Do not tell me they are falling behind.

A test-driven vision of education is a dehumanized, short-game vision of education. It is the antithesis of the education most educators and students and their families dream of and want for themselves and others.

This global pandemic has laid bare the violence of a dehumanized system of education; families in every corner of the country now understand that a standardized, “one size fits all” education actually doesn’t work.

Educators have been shouting this for two decades, but the system has been good at using language and metaphors to seduce and convince families that their kids, too, can win the race. No matter that the race is to nowhere.

A radical and alarmist tone about students’ reading and math scores should shake us to our core. Those who are really concerned about the “disadvantaged” children and youth, would use their power to advocate for healthcare, increased wages and incomes for their families, secure food supplies, wrap-around school services, and enriched educational activities for everyone.

Trust me, the "disadvantaged" children and families are reading this situation very well. I have 20 years of research and teaching experience with the so-called disadvantaged and I promise you that the kind of reading they are doing now about this society cannot be quantified on a diagnostic test and it cannot be remediated out of them.

In our nation’s crisis some people are calling for the most limited and dehumanizing action to be taken by educators in the fall. Doubling down on “diagnostics” and “aggressive remediation” will benefit no one except testing corporations, technology companies, and publishing houses who sell products to diagnose, remediate, and evaluate every stride in a fictional race.

This crisis we are in - the pandemic and everything connected to it in education - is not for sale. Teachers are good at their jobs (heroic, actually, as many people are learning) and they know how to meet students where they are without the expensive tests, scripted curriculum, test prep materials, remediation software programs, and other tools that get in their way of teaching.

In fact, this generation of youth might finally have an opportunity to experience something more than the testing industrial complex when teachers begin welcoming them back into schools.