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Education Secretary Cardona stands firm on standardized testing mandate amid criticism

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona speaks at a news briefing at the White House on March 17. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)

A day after more than 500 education researchers asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona not to force school districts to administer federally mandated student standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona said Tuesday that policymakers needed the data obtained from the exams.

Appearing at the 2021 legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), Cardona said giving school districts flexibility in how and when they administer the exams — as the department has already given — was the right thing to do. “One size does not fit all,” he said.

But he said, student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed. When federal funding is distributed to states, he said, “we have to make sure we are laser-focused on addressing inequities that have existed for years. ... Every bit of data helps.”

The Education Department announced this week how much money each state, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico would receive from the $122 billion in funding for K-12 schools that was included in the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act.

Cardona made the comment during a question-and-answer period at the CCSSO conference when he was asked what he hoped to learn from the exams. His CCSSO appearance came a day after 548 members of the academic research community sent Cardona a letter, urging him to award states waivers from the exams because they will “exacerbate inequality” and “produce flawed data.”

They also urged Cardona to invest in “more holistically evaluating school quality” by “developing new measures of educational opportunities.”

Don’t force schools to give standardized tests this pandemic year, research scholars ask Education Secretary Cardona

Cardona said Tuesday that he would be willing to “reexamine what role assessments” play in education — but not immediately.

“This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better,” he said.

The Education Department announced in February that public school districts had to administer exams in math and English Language Arts that are required to be administered to most K-12 students annually, first by the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and then by its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act.

A number of states had asked the department to grant waivers from the testing requirement — as Education Secretary Betsy DeVos did in spring 2020 after the pandemic had forced schools across the country to close. Some state schools chiefs have said it is a waste of time to give standardized tests in such a chaotic school year — and others said that it may be too difficult to securely administer them when many students are still learning remotely from home.

For example, Richard Woods, Georgia’s state schools chief, said in a statement, “I completely disagree with this decision, and believe it shows the continued disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the realities of the classroom. At this point, our focus is on ensuring this disheartening decision does not harm the health and safety of any Georgia student.”

Testing advocates say the exams provide vital data on how all student groups are performing in school and are needed for accountability purposes. Student test scores are used — at least in part — by some states to evaluate teachers and by states to evaluate districts and schools. Some advocates have also said they were important to help teachers target assistance to students who do poorly.

Critics have said that teachers can’t see the test questions or know which ones their students got wrong, and Cardona on Tuesday acknowledged that the test scores “may not be” what teachers need the day after the test to help students. But he said, they “may be what policymakers” need to “take bold actions like addressing inequities.”

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The academics’ letter sent Monday cited a number of reasons that critics have long used in calling for an end to the mandated tests.

“The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting,” it says. “To that end, we understand why some civil rights groups have advocated for systems that use standardized tests to highlight inequalities.

“Whatever their flaws,” the letter continues, “test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand they be addressed. But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

Critics have also said that the very flexibility that the Education Department has agreed to give states that want it will mean that the standardized tests are no longer standardized, muddying their value.

Forcing us to use the same standardized tests is a mistake, Michigan’s education chiefs tell Biden administration