A terrible new approach to pandemic learning loss: Maybe we should just not test for it

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

The NY Times published a story yesterday which notes that some educators have proposed a terrible new way to deal with pandemic learning loss among students: Don’t test for it so we don’t know how bad it is.

You’ve probably heard by now that a bunch of research suggests the last year has been terrible for many K-12 students, particularly those in public schools. Online learning has been a real struggle for a lot of kids, to the point that some have simply disappeared and have given up trying. In some cases the impact on kids goes beyond learning deficits to serious emotional problems and even suicide. And even knowing all of that, teacher’s unions in some places like Chicago and LA continue to fight the reopening of schools now and won’t even commit to fully reopening in the fall.

The learning deficits are real and will have to made up for or accounted for in some way. But the Times story zeroes in on a hot new idea now circulating among some teachers and unions: Maybe we’re better off not knowing. Actually, they aren’t quite saying that because it’s so obviously self-serving. What they’re saying is maybe it’s better for the kids not to know. After all, being a year behind your peers could be stigmatizing.

This argument has some extra zing because the research suggests minority kids have fallen behind the most in the past year, so measuring that increased inequity could itself be framed as a kind of injustice. You can think of pandemic learning losses as a bit like Schrodinger’s cat. So long as you don’t do the testing, you never have to find out the cat is dead, or in this case that the students are woefully behind in math and reading.

“This isn’t a lost generation,” said Kayla Patrick, a policy analyst at the Education Trust, a national advocacy group focused on low-income students and students of color. “They just need extra support — in many cases, the support they probably needed before the pandemic, like tutoring.”

Others go further, arguing that regardless of what terminology is used, standardized testing to measure the impact of the pandemic is unnecessary or even actively harmful. Voices as prominent as the former New York City schools chancellor, Richard Carranza, and the Massachusetts Teachers Association, the state’s largest educators’ union, have encouraged parents to opt their children out of state tests during the pandemic. “We do not want to impose additional trauma on students that have already been traumatized,” Mr. Carranza said.

This week, the nation’s largest school system, in New York City, announced that parents would have to opt their children in to state standardized testing, which could lead to a smaller group of students taking the exams, and results that will be difficult to interpret.

After months of fighting a return to classrooms unions now want to muddy the waters about exactly what that delay has cost students. There’s a clear motive for teachers to avoid that day of reckoning, not for the students but for themselves. They don’t want to be held accountable for those test results by angry parents, many of whom have been loudly demanding classrooms reopen for months. It would be much better for the teachers if they could simply say the cost of their approach to the pandemic was unknown and perhaps unknowable. Telling parents not to have their kids tested is one way to ensure that. And framing this self-interest as concern for stigmatizing children is really the chef’s kiss in this scenario.

There’s another dumb idea that is circulating around this first one. It’s the claim, which I’ve seen before, that students who’ve fallen behind in fundamentals like reading and math have simply been occupied learning other equally important things:

Jesse Hagopian, a Seattle high school teacher and writer, said testing to measure the impact of the pandemic misses what students have learned outside of physical classrooms during a year of overlapping crises in health, politics and police violence.

“They are learning about how our society works, how racism is used to divide,” he said. “They are learning about the failure of government to respond to the pandemic.”

I guess this is the new woke standard for education: Who cares if fourth graders can read proficiently so long as they have proper political opinions about current events. Forget about pushing kids toward STEM careers, which requires math proficiency, lets focus instead on creating the next generation of Critical Race Theorists.

Teachers and their unions care first and foremost about themselves. That’s why they haven’t been willing to accept even minimal risk to return to classrooms (in some cases even after they’ve been vaccinated) and it’s why they don’t want testing to show the impact of their foot-dragging on students. Parents should insist on their kids being tested so we can all see the full impact this has had and then try to address it. It is possible these kids can bounce back, but only if we know who needs the help and how much. Only a teacher’s union could be against trying to make up for the learning deficit they have helped to create.