The grammar of schooling and testing mandates in a pandemic

Why did the Biden administration deny the request by Georgia and South Carolina to waive federal requirements for achievement testing in schools this year? According to Aaron Pallas and many others, there is no discernible added information we can expect from state-level testing that is only for a summative judgment of schools, in a year when those judgments are suspended. But the federal government will still require that states conduct the tests, even when participation is likely to be far lower than before the pandemic.

University of Illinois education professor Paul Bruno suggests that the federal Department of Education’s decision is about the long-term future of testing, and that this decision is really about ensuring that testing remains an essential part of every school year:

If Bruno’s speculation is correct, advocates of high-stakes testing policies may be shooting themselves in the foot: I would have thought that the nightmare scenario for defenders of the testing status quo was a return to in-person schooling right before a testing window.1 “Welcome back, we’re so glad to see you! By the way, state testing starts tomorrow.” For that reason, I think, the federal guidance in the first few weeks of the Biden administration made clear that states should not mandate that students who are still remote come into schools physically just for state testing.

I underestimated the foolishness of public officials: Florida’s current policy is to require that remote-only students return physically to schools for testing purposes, even if they remain remote for everything else for the rest of the school year. Understandably, parents who are keeping their students in a remote setting are upset.

I think a much shrewder approach would have been to rely on millions of parents’ desperation for normality next year to reinstate a full testing system, and consider this spring a wash. But I’m not a state or federal official, or a politician, so maybe the way this spring’s testing might trigger disgust by parents is worth the continuity of even the symbolic formality of testing.

But let’s assume for the moment that Pallas is correct about the uselessness of information from state testing this year, and that I am correct that insisting on testing doesn’t have any long-term value in bolstering the political legitimacy of testing. What’s left? Annual testing as a part of the school year, at the very least a ritual like Homecoming or Field Day.2 Supporters of annual testing are pushing it in part to make sure it is annual testing, and they are certain it belongs in the school year. In other words, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona denied the waiver for the same reason that high schools have football teams and first graders get letter grades: it’s part of the script of a “real school,” and part of the grammar of schooling, what David Tyack and Larry Cuban described as the cultural expectations that population-level experience builds up about what schooling consists of.

In this, the federal testing mandate of 2021 resembles the ceremonial accountability system in place in the early federal republic, public exhibitions on the last day of a school session: a ritual that had and has little to do with improving schools.3 I’m a little surprised anyone wants this, but the pull of the grammar of schooling is powerful, and often leads people to irrational ends.


  1. I’m using defenders of the status quo a little in jest here, as it’s a rhetorical saw used by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and others who are … defenders of the testing status quo. []
  2. If your school experience had neither Homecomings nor Field Days, insert a non-academic ritual that happened every year in one of your schools. []
  3. Bill Reese describes school exhibitions in his book, Testing Wars in the Public Schools. []