Contrived notion of learning loss insults students and educators

Testing companies, along with education administrators and politicians who have drunk the testing Kool-Aid, can’t stop talking about the “learning loss” of students this past year.

But what does “learning loss” mean during a worldwide, deadly pandemic?

“If you ask me about learning loss, I’ll tell you about students who are taking care of their siblings. I’ll talk to you about high school students that are picking up utility bills because they’re the only ones in the household with a job right now,” CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said. “Learning loss, as defined by a racist standardized test is one thing, but learning to survive and surviving in a pandemic is something completely different.”

Teachers are dedicated to our students’ learning. We want students to love reading and be excited by what they learn. We want them to understand concepts, not just facts, to be able to reason and think things through. We want them to express themselves through art, music, dance, speech, and/or writing. We want them to be curious and to understand that often there are no simple answers.

Standardized tests cannot measure these and many other qualities — they measure a very narrow set of skills that are not at the heart of what is most important for education. Yet, the drumbeat to address learning loss, by definition, will rely on those very narrow, limited tests. And testing companies are chomping at the bit to get a piece of the learning loss pie, worth billions of dollars.

Tests’ racist history

Districts already use testing-company-created assessments to measure “learning” and whether it is lost or gained. These assessments have a racist history that continues to this day. We should not get caught in their web of lies.

Educators have their work cut out for them in the months ahead. Our students may come to us in the fall grieving loved ones lost to Covid or having their lives disrupted due to parents’ job losses or evictions. They may have faced other traumas, like the gun violence plaguing the city.

They also may come to us having missed assignments, papers and exams this past year. But, as educators, we must resist getting sucked into the contrived notion of “learning loss.” To say our students have not learned during the pandemic is an insult to them and to their teachers.

As mathematician John Ewing wrote in The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss:

“But what’s it mean—”five months of learning loss”? What exactly is lost? Do students forget facts?  Skills? Are memories erased? Can they find what’s lost? And what does “five months” mean? Yes, I know, it’s calculated from a mathematical formula, but formulas are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into them. Mathematics is not magic. What are the assumptions? What’s the data? Where does it come from? When people discuss learning loss, they generally don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And if the notion is so vague, how can it be so easily and precisely measured?”

More tests, bigger profits for testing companies

Testing companies and their enablers are trying to take over education and push teachers to focus on a narrow set of skills and replace professional development with test data analysis. ISBE’s new plan to require three-times-a-year state testing is the latest example of how the vague notion of “learning loss” is being used to justify more testing mandates  — and profits for testing companies.

CTU’s testing committee, along with the Illinois Federation of Teachers and our parent and community allies, mobilized against the ISBE plan, estimated to cost $227 million over ten years. In a victory for our coalition, the state board has agreed to delay voting on the new test until it engages on it with all stakeholders.

“Our children have faced enough during this pandemic,” Davis Gates said. “The last thing we want to do is make them feel as though they are lacking when they return to our classrooms.”

Contact Carol Caref,, to get involved in the committee’s  work.

Carol Caref, Ph.D., is an Education Policy Analyst with the Chicago Teachers Union.