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Some states were still hoping to cancel testing. The Biden administration just said no.

A group of students take a test in a classroom with a teacher walking by. Chris Ryan / Getty Images

States holding out hope that they can cancel standardized testing this year got more bad news Friday, as the Biden administration formally denied requests to do so from two states.

But the U.S. Department of Education approved Colorado’s request to effectively cut testing in half — offering a path for other states that want to reduce the burden of exams this year.

“The realities of the pandemic mean that there’s going to have to be flexibility,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant education secretary, said in an interview Friday. “At the same time, obtaining data on student learning includes high-quality statewide assessments, and that data is critically important from an educational equity perspective.”

Last month, the department told states they must give exams but could make changes to account for the pandemic. The new decisions shed light on how far federal officials will allow states to go.

Officials denied Georgia’s and South Carolina’s requests to cancel statewide testing entirely. In its request, Georgia had emphasized that its districts could choose to offer a diagnostic exam, but the department said that was not enough.

South Carolina had sought to skip a statewide test in favor of allowing districts to choose their own exam. That decision does not bode well for other states, including Michigan and California, also hoping to use local exams in lieu of state tests.

On Monday, South Carolina’s Superintendent of Education Molly Spearman criticized the decision. “Unfortunately, as so often happens, Washington D.C. thinks they know best and now educators and students will be forced to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing, administering, and taking tests whose results won’t be known for months, when they should be focused closing academic gaps,” she said in a statement.

The department also told Oregon that it could not substitute a survey of students for a standardized test.

Colorado, though, got a thumbs-up for its plan to give math tests in grades 4, 6, and 8 and reading tests in grades 3, 5, and 7, rather than both tests in each grade as typically required. Parents who want their child to take exams in both subjects could opt to do so, or they could opt them out of both tests.

Colorado’s plan serves as something of a test case for how far states can go in reducing testing without running afoul of federal rules, though the department says it will make decisions on a state by state basis.

“Colorado identified specific circumstances that made it impossible to administer their state-wide summative assessments in the way they normally would,” Rosenblum told Chalkbeat. “This is an important example of how flexibility can be achieved.”

The flurry of decisions, released on a Friday evening, are unlikely to quell controversy around the Biden administration’s decision to require testing during a year defined by the pandemic’s disruption.

Testing supporters — including some civil rights, business, and education reform groups, as well as the education department itself — say the results are vital for measuring and responding to the pandemic’s effects on students’ learning.

On the other side, critics — including teachers’ groups, some school officials, and some education scholars — argue that testing will be a waste of valuable time and won’t produce valid results anyway due to a host of practical constraints.

“During this critical time, we must dedicate all of our efforts to a return to safe, in person learning, and we cannot divert our time and expenses to ‘teaching to,’ implementing and administering federally mandated testing,” several Democratic lawmakers argued in a recent letter to Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.

Democrats in Congress are split on the issue, and polls have shown that parents are divided, too.

Regardless, the department’s latest moves underscore that some testing will happen everywhere. But the department has said that it’s not necessary to bring students back into school buildings just to administer a test, which means many students learning virtually are likely to opt out of the exams.

In New York City, for instance, the majority of students are learning remotely and are not expected to take the tests unless they actively choose to. Success Academy — the city’s largest charter network, known for its high test scores — has said it simply won’t give the test because its students remain entirely remote.

Testing experts say that will make the results difficult to interpret. If a chunk of students are missing from the data, it becomes very challenging, though perhaps not impossible, to get an accurate gauge of learning loss. It may be precisely the students who spent the most time learning remotely, and fell the furthest behind, who don’t take the test.

Cardona has defended the department’s decision to maintain testing in a number of recent appearances, saying the results will help target new federal education dollars.

“When we’re pushing out $130 billion, state-level data — not necessarily the classroom data, because teachers know where their kids are, but that state-level data — is going to ensure that we’re providing the funds to those students who are impacted the most by the pandemic,” he said on MSNBC Thursday.

In fact, how the vast majority of this new funding will be distributed has already been determined by the stimulus bill.

On Friday, Rosenblum said the results could also be used to shape efforts to address learning loss, like summer and after-school programs. “You want to be able to use data at a state level and at a district level to be able to really inform those programs and strategies,” he said.

Other testing supporters have made a different argument — that test results can be used to make the case for additional investments in schools.

“We want to show it was bad, but because we had the resources, we did a good job,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, who has championed both stimulus funding and maintaining testing, at a recent conference of urban school leaders. “Without the assessments, you can’t make that argument.”

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