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One month in, Biden angers supporters who wanted him to curb standardized testing

Then-Vice President Biden speaks during the National Education Association's annual meeting in Washington in 2012. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

In December 2019, Joe Biden appeared at an education forum and was asked if he would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools if elected president. His answer was surprising — given that the Obama administration, in which he served as vice president, made testing a central part of its controversial education agenda.

“Yes,” Biden said. “You are preaching to the choir.” He said that evaluating teachers by student test scores — a feature of President Barack Obama’s overhauls — was “a big mistake” and that “teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.”

Critics of high-stakes testing took heart in his response and hoped he would diminish the importance of the standardized tests that federal law requires states to give annually to hold schools accountable for student progress. An early indication of that would be whether he would do what Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s education secretary, did in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning: allow states to skip them.

Now, a month into the Biden presidency, the Education Department announced this week that states must give the exams — although with some flexibility about how to administer them and use the scores. (An Education Department spokesperson said Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, did not participate in the decision.)

Education Department offers flexibility, but not a way out, for spring testing

Specifically, states were told they could shorten the exams, administer them remotely or give them later in the year. States were also offered flexibility with how they use test scores, which has included for teacher evaluation, school grades and graduation requirements. And the department said it would work with individual states to address their unique circumstances, suggesting further flexibility.

At least nine states have asked the Education Department for permission to skip the exams and more than 20 have asked if they could refrain from using the test scores for accountability purposes, according to a department spokesperson. Now they and other states that want flexibility from federal law will enter into negotiations with the department, which is expected to be led by Cardona if he is confirmed by the Senate.

Critics reacted swiftly to the decision to require the exams, flooding social media with condemnations. They said it was not feasible to quickly shorten the exams or to administer them remotely. And one notable member of the education world, Richard Carranza, the chancellor of the New York City public school district, urged parents to refuse to let their children take the tests.

New York state had sought a waiver from the federal testing requirement. When Carranza was asked what kind of tests could be given to the city’s students at this point, he said, “As an educator I would say to parents, there is an opt-out. And if there is ever a time to consider whether that opt-out makes sense for you, this is the time.”

That was a reference to the testing opt-out movement that developed in the 2010s when Obama ramped up high-stakes standardized testing (to the disappointment of many supporters). In some years, more than 20 percent of New York’s students refused to take the federally mandated exams.

A new opt-out push is underway by the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit organization that works to stop the misuse of standardized tests, said interim executive director Bob Schaeffer. He said states should not use the scores to evaluate teachers and to rate schools, because “scores from exams administered during a pandemic are certain to be inaccurate and unfair.”

The Education Department’s letter, signed by acting assistant education secretary for elementary and secondary education Ian Rosenblum, said test scores were important and that accountability systems on which they are based “play an important role in advancing educational equity.”

That statement has long been challenged by assessment experts and others who say that test scores only reveal what is already known: Students who are vulnerable and/or from low-income families score worse than better-off and White students.

“Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association. “We need to ensure that our students who have been hardest hit during the pandemic — our Black, brown, rural, indigenous students, as well as those with special needs — receive the support they need.”

What you need to know about standardized testing

A new report (see below) issued this month by the nonprofit, nongovernmental National Academy of Education noted that giving tests to ensure educational equity could have the opposite effect.

“An underlying predicament is whether the legitimate attempt to measure the effects of inequality on education might cause further inequality. For example, disadvantaged children’s performance on a digital or virtual assessment may be distorted because of inadequate technology or connectivity, which may bias the result and lead to spurious inferences about their learning.”

The Education Department letter to the states also said: “To be successful once schools have reopened, we need to understand the impact covid-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need.”

Critics noted that teachers can’t see the questions that students got right and wrong, and that makes it impossible for them to target supports on specific skills. “The test results will go into some large databank but they will not actually tell us what we need to know about where a child is at right now,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second-largest national teachers union.

In recent weeks, there were growing calls for the Biden administration to let states skip the tests. More than 70 local, state and national organizations signed a letter to Cardona urging him to let states use other assessments to determine how much progress students have made this year. Weingarten said this would have been a good opportunity for the federal government to allow locally created assessments to be used to evaluate students.

Biden administration urged to allow states to cancel spring standardized testing

A few hundred deans of colleges of education — coming together in an alliance called Education Deans for Justice and Equity — signed a letter (see below) urging the administration not to force schools to administer the tests. It said that “problems abound with high-stakes standardized testing of students, particularly regarding validity, reliability, fairness, bias, and cost” and the coronavirus pandemic has made those problems worse.

They noted that the disruption in learning caused by the pandemic “almost certainly compromised” the content validity of tests that have been constructed under multimillion-dollar contracts with testing companies.

“Furthermore, with so much trauma in the lives of students and families, schools need to invest all they can into quality time with students, supplemental tutoring, and enrichment and wellness programs, not stress-inducing, time-consuming tests that provide narrow data of limited use,” the deans said.

“Haven’t we traumatized kids enough?” Weingarten said.

High-stakes standardized tests have been at the center of the school “accountability” movement which began in earnest with the 2002 No Child Left Behind federal law. It required schools to annually give most students math and English Language Arts exams. The main idea was that the results would show achievement gaps that had long been ignored and special attention could be targeted to the lowest-performing students and schools.

But, critics of the tests said, the achievement gaps were long-known and that the test-based accountability reform movement did nothing to seriously improve those gaps. Instead, curriculum was narrowed as teachers focused on the two tested subjects, and too much time was spent on test preparation. Obama ramped up the importance of the tests, extending the uses for the test results.

The issue was seen as an early test of the Biden administration when it came to K-12 policy — and now, many people who oppose high-stakes testing and who had supported Biden are looking with new skepticism about his education agenda.

“He lied,” said education historian and public schools advocate Diane Ravitch, referring to Biden’s comments in 2019 at the forum that was hosted by her nonprofit organization, the Network for Public Education.

Some Biden supporters said they have been watching to see if he would live up to promises he made to focus on educational equity in a way that was very different from the Obama administration’s approach, which prioritized test scores and charter schools. During the campaign, Biden repeatedly said things that assured critics of high-stakes standardized tests and charter schools that he was with them.

Denisha Jones, director of the Art of Teaching Program at Sarah Lawrence College, who asked Biden the question about testing at the 2019 forum, said she feels let down.

“As the pandemic rages on and districts struggle to move from remote to hybrid and fully in-person, why should Biden insist on keeping the standardized tests he claimed made no sense in a pre-covid world? Fortunately, parents and students have an excellent tool at their disposal. They can opt out,” said Jones, an education and social justice activist.

Referring to the administration’s flexibility for states on how they use the test results, Seattle high school teacher Jesse Hagopian, who is a leader in the Black Lives Matter at School movement, wrote in the Progressive:

“It is an ominous harbinger when the Biden Administration deems it permissible for other states to misuse standardized tests, using them as cudgels to harm and punish students and their teachers — especially at a time when so many families are reeling from the stress and trauma of a pandemic that has infected over 28 million people and killed over 500,000 in the United States.”

Here’s the letter the Education Department sent to states with guidance on standardized testing for 2021:

Here’s the February 2021 report from the National Academy of Education on educational assessments during the pandemic:

Here’s the letter to Miguel Cardona from education deans urging that federal requirements for 2021 standardized testing be waived: