I grew up in Texas during the final phase of what would soon become the federal testing regime passed in 2001, during the first days of the Bush presidency, in a bipartisan bill known as “No Child Left Behind.” Our tests were called the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills; we called it “the TAAS test.” The collective scores of these tests determined a rating for the school each year, with degrees of achievement and remediation. If the school got a good score, it would hang a gaudy banner as if it had won the state championship. The crucial year for testing was the sophomore year, presumably to allow students to retake the test two more times before graduation if they failed.
I recall sitting in the school auditorium with a flat plywood board adorned with graffiti on my lap. I soon realized that the moment I finished my test I would have to return to regular classes that I mostly despised. So I chose to stay with my test all day long, taking naps and pretending to be hard at work when the test monitors walked by.
I don’t recall what happened during lunchtime, but I do remember that most students finished before lunch, especially the smart ones. I was moved into the library after lunch. A handful of us were there by mischievous choice, the rest were struggling and a few had special needs. A test monitor scowled into my ear, “You know it doesn’t take this long for you to finish this, Rocha.” I smiled and replied that I was just trying to do my best and this was really hard stuff. We had to be finished by 3:30 pm and I turned in my booklet and bubble sheet with enough time to gather my things and head to the gym for an offseason football workout.
I never could have predicted that the TAAS test would become the law of the land under Bush, who was at that time the governor of my state, increasing its reach more recently with Obama’s “Race to the Top” and “Common Core” initiatives. I also didn’t realize that my year of testing shenanigans, 1999, was part of a final phase before the foundation of a testing industrial complex, made up of giant corporations like Pearson, contracted in multimillion-dollar, multi-decades long business agreements with state governments, funded by taxpayers.
The logic of testing is justified by moralistic tautologies and statistical psychobabble, sayings like Bush’s “standards without accountability are not standards” and mostly bogus “science-based research” cooked up in quantitative social science studies. As “No Child Left Behind” indicates, the titles of these laws pander to a legislative body that doesn’t want to look bad and a sentimental and desperate public.
Accountability is utterly unaccountable to almost any serious or continuous public oversight, managed by business professionals and graded by people sometimes hired over Craigslist. The standards have lower standards than having no standards at all would have, as we can see by the fact that students at Andover and Exeter—and the Sidwell Friends School, where Obama’s and Joe Biden’s children attend—don’t have any such “standards.”
Most of all, the curricula that support and prepare students for these miserable tests manage what seemed impossible to me in 1999: They make compulsory schooling even stupider and more soul deadening than it always has been. This may seem an arbitrary and petty opinion, and it may well also be that, but it’s one that is shared across the United States by teachers, parents, and students. Even Diane Ravitch, one of the earliest supporters of “No Child Left Behind” and an engineer of the testing movement, has thoroughly renounced them in The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Undermine Education.
Perhaps worst of all, these tests prey on the conscience of teachers and parents who are not prepared to critique and question them, the ones who trust the school and respect the tests. They sometimes go as far as to place students in testing pep rallies. This is not a metaphor; there are literally school gatherings to get students “pumped up” and excited for testing. This resembles the DARE campaign against drugs and deserves every bit of mockery. Individual and collective test scores are a part of the bumper sticker mentality that plagues our miseducational culture.
There is, of course, nothing intrinsically evil about a test. Testing is not in and of itself a harmful thing. There is no way to avoid certain tests. When one’s courage is tested, there is nothing one can do to opt out. The test of love is one we all hope to pass. However, a “test” itself must be accountable to a truer and more rigorous standard, just as a “law" must be held accountable to a higher standard. When laws are unjust, they become unlawful. When tests are stupid, they fail the test of reason. When laws and tests harm entire, and increasingly poor, populations and enrich multi-billion dollar private industries, they become violent. They even drive some to cheat, with legal consequences.
The only bad test is a bad test, and the only bad school is a bad school. There is nothing magical about testing something that it must be regulated and restricted like a pharmaceutical drug. Indeed, a great deal of the failure of testing is that it supports the toxic ideology that restricts making sense and showing intelligence to a class of know-nothing experts and professionals, rendering teachers, parents, and students disposable and at a constant deficit.
In every possible way, testing has failed. The only way that it has passed and perhaps even succeeded has been in forming into a set of private interests and capital that are able to defend it against its critics. I have been and will continue to be a critic of compulsory schooling writ large, however it is impossible to deny or wax cavalier about the plain fact that compulsory testing in compulsory schooling makes things far worse and at least doubly harmful.
If you have the option for your students to opt out in some way, it is not enough to save them from the savage teeth of testing. There are hundreds of thousands of others who, for whatever reason, will not be able to avoid testing, who will be chewed up and ground into what may even be a premature intellectual death. It is long overdue to gather across ideological and political lines (what I have called The Schooling Consensus) to declare one of the few things progressives and conservatives agree upon: The tests have failed.
We may not agree about deschooling, but it is very hard for me to imagine how we cannot agree about detesting the school.