Of all of the absurd and appalling stories that emerged from the standardized test-based school reform movement in the 2010s, there were two that, arguably, best revealed to me how bankrupt and even cruel some of the things policymakers foisted on children could be.

There were, to be sure, plenty of stories in the past decade to choose from — even without going back to the start of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) era in 2002, when President George W. Bush (R) signed his signature education law that ushered in an era of school reform based on the scores of standardized tests.

No teacher had been asked to help write NCLB, and the results showed: Schools were labeled as failing and penalized unfairly; many schools sharply limited or dropped teaching key subjects such as history, science and the arts because only math and reading were tested; and test preparation became the focus of the school day in many classrooms. Recess for young kids? No time.

Arne Duncan, education secretary for President Barack Obama from 2009-2015, knew that NCLB had been a failure, but he pursued policies that made standardized testing even more important than before. He wanted states to use the scores to evaluate teachers and principals. And he once proposed evaluating colleges of education in part on how well the students of their graduates performed on — you guessed it — standardized tests.

There were stories about teachers being evaluated on the test scores of students they didn’t have and subjects they didn’t teach.

There were stories of high-performing teachers getting poor evaluations because of complicated and problematic algorithms that were used to calculate their “worth” in class — which some reformers said could be ascertained by eliminating every single other factor (even hunger and chronic grief) that could affect how well a child does on a test.

And there were stories of pep rallies and other incentives to get students “excited” about taking standardized tests.

But there were two that still resonate deeply and reveal just how vacant — and mean — some of the policy was. Why recount them? Because as new school reform efforts are being implemented, it is worth remembering that good intentions are not enough and that bad policy has real and sometimes extreme effects on children and adults.

One of these stories was from 2013, when the state of Florida required a 9-year-old boy who was born without the cognitive portion of his brain to take a version of the state’s standardized Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT). The boy, Michael, was blind, couldn’t talk or understand basic information. Judy Harris, the operator and owner of a care facility for children in Orlando where Michael was left shortly after birth, told News 13 at the time:

Michael loves music, he loves to hear, and he loves for you to talk to him and things like that, but as far as testing him, or questioning him on what is an apple and a peach, what is the difference? Michael wouldn’t know what that is."

But the rules said every student could take a test and be evaluated, however severe their disabilities might be. I wrote about the situation at the time and asked education officials in the Florida Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Education why this was happening. They all said every student could be assessed. At the time I wrote:

State Rep. Linda Stewart of Orlando told me she didn’t think that a young boy who can’t tell the difference between an apple and a peach should be taking any test, and tried to get officials in the Education Department to step in to stop the charade of Michael taking a test.
She said nobody did. “Nobody wanted to take the responsibility of stopping it,” she said.
Rick Roach, an Orange County, Florida, school board member who was following Michael’s story, confirmed that Michael was in fact forced to take the test, meaning that a state employee sat down and read it to him, as if he could actually understand it.

In 2013, Roach had told Michael’s story to educator Marion Brady, who wrote about it for The Answer Sheet. I recently asked Roach about Michael’s status and he said Michael, now 15, still lives at the home run by Harris.

The second disturbing story was about a boy in Florida named Ethan Rediske, who suffered a brain injury at birth and had cerebral palsy, epilepsy, cortical blindness and the developmental equivalency of a 6-month-old child. He died on Feb. 7, 2014.

In 2013, Ethan was forced to “take” a version of the FCAT over the space of two weeks because Florida still required every student to take one. His mother, educator Andrea Rediske, managed to obtain a waiver so that he didn’t have to take the test in 2014, but it turned out there was a hitch. As Ethan was in a morphine coma dying in a hospital, the state insisted that his family prove he deserved the waiver. The ugliness of the situation was captured in the following email she wrote to Orange County School Board member Rick Roach and to reporter Scott Maxwell, who wrote about Ethan and similar cases for the Orlando Sentinel:

Rick and Scott,
I’m writing to appeal for your advocacy on our behalf. Ethan is dying. He has been in hospice care for the past month. We are in the last days of his life. His loving and dedicated teacher, Jennifer Rose has been visiting him every day, bringing some love, peace, and light into these last days. How do we know that he knows that she is there? Because he opens his eyes and gives her a little smile. He is content and comforted after she leaves.
Jennifer is the greatest example of what a dedicated teacher should be. About a week ago, Jennifer hesitantly told me that the district required a medical update for continuation of the med waiver for the adapted FCAT. Apparently, my communication through her that he was in hospice wasn’t enough: they required a letter from the hospice company to say that he was dying. Every day that she comes to visit, she is required to do paperwork to document his “progress.” Seriously? Why is Ethan Rediske not meeting his 6th-grade hospital homebound curriculum requirements? BECAUSE HE IS IN A MORPHINE COMA. We expect him to go any day. He is tenaciously clinging to life.This madness has got to stop. Please help us.
Thank you,
Andrea Rediske

The cases of Michael and Ethan were not isolated. Since that time, the national obsession with standardized testing has somewhat abated. Many states have moved away from evaluating teachers by test scores and reduced the consequences for low scores. Yet most students are still required to take standardized tests, and problems with them remain.

These stories are two I don’t believe I will ever forget.