A Christmas Carol (Testing Version)

State testing was dying; to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The actions, or more aptly put, the inactions taken by the assessment community over the years had signed the death warrant. It seemed clear that all that remained was to wait for the bell to toll. Times up. Pencils down.

It gnawed at him as he gnawed at the cold pizza before him. Three decades devoted to state testing. What difference had it made? Nothing would be different if had he never called that toll-free number on the back of the test report.

He could have gone to law school as his parents urged, stuck with music or photography, become another Bill James, or opened that ice cream shoppe. Any of those options would have resulted in a wonderful life. But no, that’s not what tonight’s angst was about. His was a wonderful life.He knew that he had made the right choice back in the 1980s and had selected several more correct options since then.

Why then was he sitting in his office, late on Christmas Eve, accompanied only by empty Diet Coke cans and a much too empty pizza box? Why hadn’t he and state testing been able to make a difference? As the opening notes to Christmas Tree Farm swirled from the smart speaker, he closed his eyes, trying to shut out the stress and the static, when just like magic…

He heard a voice. It was a slick voice. He looked down and saw the image on his MacBook screen even though the computer wasn’t on. The image was blurry, but familiar, a face that one day years before had just vanished never to be seen or heard from again.

“Jon?” he asked, not believing what he was seeing.

“Not the JC you were expecting to arrive on Christmas Eve?” the image chuckled, pleased with himself.

“Listen up. Tonight, you will be haunted by three spirits.”

“Haunted? Spirits? But you’re not dead.”

“No, but it’s part of the gig when you sell your soul. It’s not so bad, a few nights per year. I usually take the Christmas and Easter shifts. Anyway, three spirits. Listen. Last chance. Gotta go.”

Once again, just like that, without any explanation, he vanished.

The First Spirit

It wasn’t real. It couldn’t be. He shouldn’t have eaten that last pepperoni slice. Caffeine and cold pizza late at night, not a good combination at his age…

bullet-g3b197ebdd_1920In a flash of sparks and a puff of smoke, as if someone had stuck a letter opener into an electrical outlet, she appeared and began to speak.

“I am the ghost of assessment past.“

“Long past?” he asked.

“Your past.” she answered.

She looked and sounded a bit like his Italian grandmother, but with a hint of the Bronx thrown in. He smiled when he saw her in spite of himself.

She reached out and took his hand.

Instantly, they were in the apartment he rented as a graduate student. He saw a much younger and leaner version of himself, laying on the futon, opened glass bottle of Diet Coke on the nightstand (aka covered milk crate). He was reading a book, and frenetically scribbling in a notepad.

“Each culture demands, fosters, and rewards a different set of abilities, which constitute intelligence within that culture.”

“Tests can serve a predictive function only insofar as they indicate to what extent the individual has acquired the prerequisite skills and knowledge for a designated criterion performance. What persons can accomplish in the future depends not only on their present intellectual status, as assessed by the test, but on their subsequent experience.”

He never wrote directly into a book or underlined passages as some did. He was more civilized than that. It was a book, after all.

The Spirit spoke,

You knew my words when you were young, just starting out in testing, and you believed. At one time, you and most of your friends did. But as years passed, one by one my words fell silent for all of them. Even you found, one Christmas, that you could no longer remember them.”

Without warning, they were at a TAC meeting, Ron Hambleton was talking excitedly about convening a focus group to review planned score reports. He missed Ron.

Before he could say a word, they were at a conference and Ron, looking a little older, was at the front of the room talking about test reports and the need to gather input from the people who used them. The session chairperson was trying to get Ron’s attention, to no avail. Then it was another TAC meeting, about 10 years later, and Ron was urging the state to think more seriously about their test score reports.

“I don’t understand,” he said.

“Time after time Ron told you test scores cannot speak for themselves. They need to be placed in context. They need to be explained. You must tell their story, and it must be a story that is built from the listener’s experience, one that will be helpful to the listener. To do that, you first need to listen. You didn’t listen.”

As suddenly as she arrived, she was gone. Where she had stood, he saw an old, familiar textbook.

He picked it up and began to read. Her wise words about testing came back to him as he drifted off to sleep.

The Second of the Three Spirits

Out of nowhere he heard the crack of a bat and the roar of a crowd. There before him stood another supernatural visitor.

christmas-eve-gda725b2cb_1920“Hello there, old friend,” said the smartly dressed spirit.

“I am the ghost of assessment present. Look upon me!” exclaimed the Ghost.

He reverently did so.

The voice sounded so familiar, but the spirit’s face was hidden from view, partially by the shadows and partially by the brim of the well-worn Yankees cap pulled down over his eyes.

“What is it with these assessment spirits and the Bronx?” he thought. “Have I entered a special kind of Hell?”

Come and know me better, man! Together we will review the current state of affairs. “There’s a proverb that resonates with me: If you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together.”

You remember how we tried to bring people together. All of those meetings in DC, Boston, Chicago,… All that we tried to Achieve. That meeting when the community college team from New Jersey went toe-to-toe with the Stanford professor on the definition of college-ready mathematics. That was a moment to remember.

But it’s more than bringing college people together, or getting different types of assessment companies to play well together, or bringing together assessment/accountability specialists and policymakers.

It’s not even finding the common ground between advocates and critics of testing. I enjoyed a spirited exchange with Monty back in the day. But I have no truck with the nonsense going on today. 

We worked in accountability, state assessment, and policy you and I, but I learned from my father, as you learned from yours, that instruction and learning lives in schools with students, teachers, and administrators. Accountability and assessment policy has to support the people in schools.”

I tried to connect the dots and the people, but I could not finish the job. This Spirit was willing, but my flesh was weak.

“The challenges are tremendous but that means the opportunities are large.”

And he was gone.

The Last of the Spirits

Alone in his room again, he heard no sound, but felt a presence.

Lifting up his eyes, he beheld a solemn phantom, draped and hooded, coming, like a mist along the ground, towards him.

christmas-ornament-ge3fef1280_1920Before him loomed an imposing figure, standing nearly 7’ tall and weighing 20 stone. They were shrouded in a deep black garment, which concealed their head, their face, their form, and left nothing of them visible save one outstretched hand. The spirit slowly, gravely, silently, approached. He felt that they were tall and stately when they came beside him, a cross between a Supreme Court Justice and the Grim Reaper.

He knew no more, for the Spirit neither spoke nor moved.

“I am in the presence of the ghost of assessment yet to come?” he said.

The Spirit answered not but pointed downward with their hand.

“You are about to show me shadows of the things that have not happened, but will happen in the time before us,” he pursued. “Is that so, Spirit?”

The Spirit inclined their head. That was the only answer he received.

The mist enveloped them.

When it cleared, he was in a briefing room, surrounded by a crowd of people. At the front of the room, a hologram whom he recognized immediately delivered this AI-generated message:

We gather on this beautiful February morning for the biennial release of NAEP results. This was the first administration to use imBIBe, the modified BIB design adopted by NAGB in 2023 at their Napa Valley meeting.

Last week each and every student in the United States responded to this prompt:

Write a paragraph to demonstrate solid academic performance and competency over challenging subject matter.

Based on the automated scoring of their responses we are pleased to report that it is plausible that 100% of students are Proficient in the things that they value.

Mission accomplished. 

Immediately, the mist enveloped them once more.

As is cleared he could see that they stood at the top of a well-built staircase looking out at a familiar churchyard. He recognized the white van in the corner parking spot. From inside the building, he heard a soothing voice describing the need for balanced systems, deeper understanding, awareness of the root of the problem, and disciplined planning. He smiled, and his body relaxed, as a sense of calm overtook him.

Turning to open the door, he stopped dead in his tracks (well, figuratively). The first floor had been returned to its original state, offices replaced by mats spread out across the nave.  The Spirit pointed to the sign on the wall.

He began to read

Center for Blissful Yoga
Marissa …

That’s as far as he got before beginning to tremble.

The Spirit paused a moment, observing his condition, and giving him time to recover. The mist returned.

When the fog cleared (internally and externally), he found himself standing in a pile of rubble as the Spirit sat next to him in front of the remnants of a locker – forlornly fulfilling the obligations of a long-ago signed contract.

In the distance, sticking up from amidst the debris he saw what looked like the handle of a giant baseball bat. At that moment, he heard the strains of Miami 2017 and knew exactly where he was.  He fell to his knees, pounded the ground, and screamed in a mix of anger and anguish,

Oh, my God! We finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!

“Spirit!” he cried, tightly clutching at their robe, “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I will not be the man I must have been but for this intercourse. Why show me this, if I am past all hope?”

“Good Spirit,” he pursued, as down upon the ground he fell before them: “Your nature intercedes for me, and pities me. Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!”

At that, the Spirit finally spoke,

“Your future hasn’t been written yet. No one’s has! Your future is whatever you make it. So, make it a good one!”

“It’s not too late. Thank heavens!” he exclaimed with relief.  

“Wait. That’s from Back to the Future.”

The Spirit nodded once and was gone.

The Spirits Moved Me

When he awoke, he was back in his office. The empty Diet Coke cans and pizza box were still there. Was it a dream? No, it couldn’t have been. It was all too real. Some of it wasn’t very nice, but most of it was beautiful.

How long had he been asleep?

He heard the sound of children playing outside. Running to the window, he opened it, and put out his head. No fog, no mist; clear, bright, jovial, stirring, cold; cold, piping for the blood to dance to; Golden sunlight; Heavenly sky; sweet fresh air; merry bells. Oh, glorious. Glorious!

“What’s today?” he cried, calling downward to a girl in Sunday clothes,

“Today!” replied the girl. “Why, Christmas Day.”

“It’s Christmas Day!” he said to himself. “I haven’t missed it. The Spirits have done it all in one night. They can do anything they like. Of course they can. Of course they can.

Thank you, my fine child!”

“An intelligent girl!” he said. “A remarkable girl! A Proficient girl!”


The Aftermath

He did not waste a single moment, knowing there’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true, but tomorrow is not far away.

He was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more, and to state testing, which did NOT die, he was a second father.

He became as good a friend, as good a mentor, and as good a man, as good a man as the field knew.

Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him.

He had no further intercourse with Spirits but lived upon the principle of instruction and student learning first, ever afterwards; and it was always said of him, that he knew how to use state assessment to support instruction and student learning well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.

May that be truly said of us, and all of us!

And so, as a diminutive young student once observed, God Bless Us, Every One!


Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
With thanks to Charles Dickens

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, business, events and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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