New York education officials call for canceling state tests

An orange sign says “testing in progress, do not disturb” as students work in the background.
New York education officials will ask the federal government to waive state exams again this year. (Alan Petersime/Chalkbeat)

New York will ask the federal government to waive state tests for a second consecutive year due to the coronavirus pandemic, state education officials announced Monday. 

The state education department is requesting to cancel the reading and math tests administered to third through eighth grade students in the spring, as well as tests required for high school students. It is also seeking to limit the New York State English as a Second Language Achievement Test to those English learners who are attending school in person. A second waiver would give the state a pass on identifying new “struggling” schools this year as part of school accountability requirements. 

For high schools, the waiver — if granted — would allow the state to cancel math, reading, and science Regents exams, which New York uses to meet certain federal testing requirements. The state ultimately controls the requirement for students to take five Regents exams in order to graduate. Officials canceled January Regents exams, but it has not announced a decision for June and August, which were canceled last year.

In a statement, Board of Regents Chancellor Lester Young Jr. said tests “cannot be safely, equitably and fairly administered” this year. Officials previously indicated that the department would not offer the exams online. 

If the request proves successful, this school year would be the second in which these state tests and accountability requirements would be waived because of the ongoing pandemic. But it’s unclear how far these requests will go. President Joe Biden has not announced where he stands on testing this year. Incoming Education Secretary Miguel Cardona might want to keep them. During his role as chief of Connecticut schools, Cardona’s administration favored maintaining them this school year, though it also supported waiving school accountability requirements. 

Many educators and families have been urging the state to cancel the tests because of concerns about how to administer them when a majority of students in New York City are learning remote full-time. On top of that, many students continue to face a year of disrupted learning and are struggling in terms of mental health, academics, and technology access. But others, including some civil rights groups, worry that without the tests, schools will have less accountability, and students who are struggling will not be flagged for appropriate support. 

In separate draft letters to the federal government, department officials plan to highlight how instruction has “varied greatly” across New York schools, with many families opting for remote-only instruction. Officials also highlight that as of this fall, 215,000 students across the state did not have access to a device for school. Device access and broadband access have remained problems for thousands of New York City families. As of January, 5,800 city students still lacked a device, according to the most recent figures from education department officials. 

“The ongoing and at times rapidly worsening COVID-19 pandemic has also caused enormous economic and emotional insecurity for our students and their families and made the task of safely educating our students immensely more challenging,” the draft letter about state testing says. 

That letter adds that instructional time should be “focused on supporting students in academics as well as social-emotional health,” rather than administering exams to students who are attending school in person. 

In a statement, state teachers union president Andy Pallotta said it was “the right move” to request a cancellation because of the pandemic’s disruption to in-school instruction, adding that teachers “know their students’ needs.”

Education Trust-New York, an education advocacy group that had supported finding a way to keep tests in place this year, suggested that more should be done to ensure that districts are “addressing unfinished instruction” if the state wants a testing waiver. That would include clear guidelines for “how learning throughout the pandemic will be measured, whether students are meeting grade-level state learning standards, and what strategies districts will adopt to close widening equity gaps,” while also making that information transparent for the public, said Dia Bryant, the group’s executive director, in a statement.

There were clear signs that state officials favored canceling tests again, including the move to cancel the January Regents.

Officials were also weighing who would assume the White House, telling districts in the fall that the “political context” could change. Under former president Donald Trump’s administration, federal education officials had planned to require state tests, citing the need to measure where students are after last year’s cancellation. When Biden was on the campaign trail in October, his team declined to say how his administration would handle standardized tests this year, saying that it was a decision for those working on the transition.

Though Biden’s U.S. Education Secretary nominee Cardona canceled last year’s state tests in his role as state education commissioner in Connecticut, his administration did not plan to take that approach again, defending the exams as “guideposts of equity” that allow officials to see how different students are learning, according to an October memo. 

In New York City, state tests can also be a factor for admissions to a chunk of the city’s middle and high schools. This year’s admissions cycle was upended by the lack of scores from last spring, and having another year without the exams could force another overhaul next year.

State officials have posted both waivers online so that the public can comment on them until Feb. 5.

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