Standardized tests were canceled last school year. Don’t count on that happening again, federal official says

Denver Catholic STEM school
Erick Astorga works on his mathematics studies in preparation of standardized testing at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.  (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Should schools administer standardized tests next year? 

Many state and local education officials from across the country are pushing for cancelling federally required testing for next school year. Most recently New York City council members made the case, writing, “Amidst the extreme conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, conducting state tests cannot possibly be fair to students.”

One state, Georgia, has formally requested a waiver, and others have indicated they will as well.

But Jim Blew, an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said that such requests will receive a chilly reception.

“Our instinct would not be to give those waivers,” said Blew during the Education Writers Association conference Friday. “There are so many benefits to testing, and it allows for some transparency about how schools are performing.”

The comments are notable because Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the unprecedented decision to let states cancel testing last school year, which every state took advantage of as school buildings across the country closed during the pandemic. Blew’s comments indicate that similar requests will be viewed more skeptically in the coming year, although he did not suggest any final decision has been made. It’s unclear how logistically feasible testing will be this school year.

The decision has weighty implications — test scores are by now wrapped up in the DNA of education, used to evaluate teachers and schools, shape how parents choose among schools, decide whether students move to the next grade, and research the effectiveness of specific policies. 

The arguments for and against testing are familiar, but newly fraught with the pandemic. 

Merrie Najimy, president of the Massachusetts Teachers Association, said testing will push teachers away from addressing students’ social and emotional needs. “If we know MCAS is coming then it’s going to force us right back into the normal grind of rushing through the curriculum to cover as much content as possible,” she said, referring to the state’s test. “That’s going to do more damage to our kids.” 

Her union, long critical of testing, is pushing to eliminate the MCAS and “reevaluate the ways our public schools are assessed” as part of its guidelines for reopening schools.

State and city policymakers across the country have made similar cases, with the issue coming up New York, Oklahoma, and Tennessee; officials in Georgia, Michigan, and South Carolina have indicated they will seek a waiver for this coming year.

State tests, argued more than a dozen New York City Council members, “would serve no meaningful purpose, would take time and money away from other more important priorities for learning and healing, and would primarily serve to increase anxiety in a traumatic time.”

Not so fast, counter those who support maintaining testing requirements, including some civil rights groups. They have argued that such exams are crucial for highlighting inequities in schools, which have likely expanded because of the shift to remote instruction.

“If we forgo additional data that will mean more children are lost and hidden,” said Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of civil rights groups. “Assessment data are a critical piece of the data landscape for us understanding what’s happening to children.”

Some school officials are also supportive of maintaining tests. “At this time, we cannot predict all that the next year may bring, but we can say with certainty that assessment tools must continue to play a key role in our education system,” Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said in a recent statement. She argued that such data is valuable to families to know their child’s performance, for teachers to shape instruction, and for policymakers to make informed decisions.

Research presents a complicated picture about testing and accountability measures. Pressure from accountability has been linked to improved student learning in some cases — at least as measured on low-stakes assessments — but also produced some unintended consequences, like cheating and teaching to the test.

Whatever decision is made, the implications will extend beyond next year, said Marty West, a Harvard education professor. That’s because measures of student growth — which researchers say is a better way to judge schools — generally rely on the prior year’s score to show year over year progress.

“The longer we wait to begin to produce the information that serves as a starting point,” said  West, “the longer it will be before we can have measures of school performance that deserve to have any stakes attached to them.”

And a decision on testing also won’t address other interlocking decisions about how to address policies that rely on test scores. Even if testing is done, many will still object to attaching any high stakes to scores considering the unusual school year, which in many districts will at least begin virtually.

Meanwhile, DeVos has had a complicated relationship with testing and the federal role in requiring it. She quickly waived requirements for last school year, and she has generally been critical of federal involvement in education. She has also downplayed test results as a way for judging her favored school choice initiatives.

The issue of testing this school year may turn more on practical rather than philosophical arguments, though. If many schools are still operating remotely come spring, when tests are supposed to be administered, traditional assessment could prove infeasible. 

Blew said it’s just too early to have that conversation. “You should not be asking the year before testing whether you don’t have to test,” he said. “Let’s see how things evolve.” But he made clear where his sympathies lie. “Accountability aside, we need to know where the students are so we can address their needs,” he said.

Ultimately, though, it’s not clear whether the final decision will rest with DeVos. With a presidential election looming, a new administration may make the final call. Former Vice President Joe Biden’s campaign has suggested that if he is elected president he’ll move away from testing. 

“Democrats will work to end the use of such high-stakes tests and encourage states to develop evidence-based approaches to student assessment that rely on multiple and holistic measures,” read recently released Biden-Bernie Sanders Unity Task Force recommendations.

Reema Amin contributed reporting.

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