The Ten Plagues of Testing: A Passover Tale

Fred Smith, a testing specialist and consultant, was an administrative analyst for the New York City public schools. He’s a member of Change the Stakes, an advocacy group of parents and educators concerned about the impact of testing in schools. In the following tale, “Tweed” is shorthand in NYC for the NYC Department of Education. Guess who the Pharoah is? There is more than one.


An Anti-Passover Story: The 10 Plagues of Testing

There doesn’t seem to be any relief from high-stakes testing which has become the cruelest of taskmasters in public school systems throughout the land.  It has become a form of enslavement whose lash is felt by students, parents, teachers and principals.

The Pharaoh enthroned in this Haggadah of misery rules from the gleaming palaces of Albany and Tweed, controlling the upper and lower empire, raining oppression upon his suffering populace.  The masses await a modern day Moses to save them from the 10 Plagues of testing that keep them in chains:

The stream of learning that nourishes the minds of the youth and flows between teachers and students is bloodied by this heartless king who has decreed that testing shall be what is taught.  And so, day in and day out are spent preparing for exams, fouling the wellsprings of knowledge and bringing a drought to those thirsting to learn.

For the Pharaoh is mighty.  He instills fear in the people for failure to obey.  Dread sweeps over the land as if caused by deafening screeches made by armies of frogs.  It is visited on everyone should anyone question the wisdom of the exams.  Especially harsh consequences are threatened if even one bold parent asks what the benefit to the children is.  This brings forth thunderous wrath. Children will be punished, teachers exiled and schools closed for the welfare of the realm.

But the people have grown angry over the years because the schools have left them with little hope.  A spirit of rebellion is starting to stir. The Ruler knows he needs to do something.  High priests are summoned to give counsel.  Then his vizier whispered their scheme to quell any thoughts of revolt.

Bring in the nobles and men who have made their fortunes elsewhere to run the schools and academies.  It would cost the royal treasury dearly, but with Pharaoh’s iron fist behind the promise of better schools, incessant testing would continue and compliance would follow.

The rich and privileged are eager to preserve the school system.   Nowadays, we know them as successful businessmen, corporate types, investors and consultants.  They see in their call to service an opportunity to keep the good order and to mine the gold in the vaults of education.  All of this good work will be done for the glory of Pharaoh!

And so they swiftly descend on classrooms like lice, feeding on the blood of innocent children.  Some attack like wild animals—greedy lions and wolves, damaging schools and classrooms, leaving room for the noble profiteers to take them over or replace the ones they have destroyed.

In the wake of the insect infestation and beastly assaults, more testing takes place than ever before, wasting too much of the school day, draining time and resources from teaching and learning.  Biblical scholars describe this as a time of pestilence when generations were deprived of opportunities to acquire knowledge and experience the joy of learning.

Children become anxious about the exams and what failing them can mean. For many they are an affliction that makes their flesh crawl. Yet Pharaoh’s wise men tell him the tests have been too easy and useless for years.  At once he orders difficult ones to appear.  The students and teachers are not prepared.  Children are told the tests will be harder, but this will make them stronger.

Parents in the land begin to grumble again.  Some say they will not let their children go take these new tests.  Enraged, Pharaoh hails down stinging edicts on parents throughout the empire proclaiming all children under his dominion must take them.  If not, they and their parents will be dealt with severely for defying his supreme law.  There is no other choice.

Now the Ruler commands his scribes to prepare the harsh tests.  And they write the many very difficult items that will appear on the examinations brought forth like locusts to devour new crops.

Still not convinced that the large hailstones falling from sickly green clouds will keep the masses in line, Pharaoh asks his gods to turn the skies black—leaving the people in a greater state of shock, uncertainty and fear.  And soon blinding darkness covers the land with confusion and panic, and no one knows where to turn.  Testing prevails.

Few children pass.  And with that, the hopes and dreams of so many are defeated and the spark needed to grow in knowledge, happiness and wisdom is extinguished before it can ever set their minds on fire.  And Pharaoh and the elite prosper.