As the department continues to work with states on their individual testing plans, some have started administering tests in math and English language arts (ELA) — though not without problems. In Texas, the first day was canceled because of computer glitches. School officials in Florida and Wisconsin said students who had stayed home all year to learn remotely had to return to school for the exams, infuriating some parents. At the same time, a movement for parents to have their children “opt out” of the tests gained steam.
The controversy represents the newest chapter in a long-running national debate about the value of high-stakes standardized tests. Since 2002, the federal government has mandated schools give most students ELA and math standardized tests every year for the purposes of holding schools accountable for student progress. The scores are also used to rank schools, evaluate teachers, make grade promotion decisions and other purposes.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona says it is necessary for schools to see where students are academically after the chaos of the pandemic school year, and that the test scores will show where to target billions of dollars Congress recently approved for pandemic relief to K-12 schools.
Critics say that two decades of testing has not closed achievement gaps, with results showing the same thing year after year: students of color and from low-income families broadly do worse than other students. More than 540 education researchers and scholars urged Cardona recently to reconsider his department’s decision, saying the exams will “exacerbate inequality” and “produce flawed data” that won’t help direct resources to the neediest students.
A few days after the researchers’ letter was made public, Cardona appeared on MSNBC’s “All In With Chris Hayes,” saying getting test scores is important to “make sure that we’re moving the money and the policies for those students that were affected the most, students of color, students with disabilities, whose impact by this pandemic were greater than many others.”
Last spring, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos approved waivers that gave states permission to skip the tests as schools closed at the start of the pandemic. Many states expected the Biden administration to do the same thing for 2021 — especially because President Biden said he would end standardized testing while running for the White House — and some put in requests for waivers.
In February, the Education Department said schools had to administer the exams but it would consider state proposals that included flexibilities from the law, including shortening the exams, administering them remotely and changing the time of the year students take them.
States were also told that they could waive a requirement that 95 percent of students be tested — an acknowledgment that it would be impossible for most districts to achieve that in a year when most students stayed home. Importantly, the department also said that states could decouple the test results from accountability measures, meaning that they don’t have to be used for high-stakes purposes as usual this year.
On a recent call with reporters, Cardona defended the department’s decision to give D.C. schools a testing waiver while rejecting Michigan’s request, saying that each request was carefully reviewed and that decisions required a careful consideration of “local context.”
“There’s no one blanket way of doing it,” he said. “It required a lot of conversation between the states and our offices to make sure” the best decisions for students were reached. He also said the department’s approach “has applied a consistent standard based on the specific circumstances in each state, as we said we would.”
In its letter to the District approving a testing waiver, the Education Department said it accepted that there are “specific circumstances” that make it impossible for the school system to administer the exams. It said that “the vast majority of students in the District of Columbia (88 percent) are receiving full-time distance learning as of March 20, 2021, and most students receiving hybrid instruction are in school for only one day per week.” As a result, it said, “very few students would be able to be assessed in person this spring.”
Rice made clear in his statement last week that he thinks the department overlooked the difficulties Michigan will have giving tests at the same time it acknowledged issues in D.C. In granting the waiver to the District, the department cited the high percentage of students who had learned remotely all year and difficulties in safely administering the exams.
Rice said that Michigan has the same issues about students in remote learning, as only about one-third of Michigan’s students chose in-person schooling this year. And while students were returning to school in greater numbers in late February and March, the trend is reversing, he said. Michigan recently has had the highest number of recent coronavirus cases in the country, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Rochelle Walensky urged Michigan to shut down again recently because coronavirus numbers are so high.
“We shared our high and rising covid numbers with USED, which seemed interested solely in the administration of state summative assessments, irrespective of the small percentages of students who would likely be in person and able to take the tests,” Rice said. “This logic was indefensible in and of itself, and all the more so when juxtaposed against USED’s decision on the Washington, D.C., waiver request.”
The Education Department has been responding to other state testing proposals, some of which call for moving the spring testing to fall. That’s what New Jersey received approval to do, along with a shorter version of the New Jersey Student Learning Assessments.
“New Jersey students will not have to see their instruction time interrupted to take tests that are not helpful or appropriate under current conditions,” said a statement from Richard Bozza, executive director of the New Jersey Association of School Administrators; Patricia Wright, executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association; and Marie Blistan, president of the New Jersey Education Association.
On April 6, the department wrote a letter to California officials, saying it did not need a waiver “because California is administering all of its required assessments and all school districts will be required to administer the statewide summative assessments except in any instances where the State concludes it is not viable to administer the assessment because of the pandemic.”
Bob Schaeffer, acting executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a nonprofit known as FairTest that works to end the misuse of standardized tests, said he doesn’t see consistency in the department’s responses to states.
“Department of Education staff seem to be issuing rulings based on whether an applicant goes through the motions of stating that it is offering some form of statewide exam, no matter how small a percentage of students is likely to take it and no matter how useless results from a skewed test-taking population might be,” he said. “The goal seems to be testing solely for the sake of testing.”
Some states, angry that they have to spend time and resources to administer tests to measure student learning during a chaotic year, have cut back on other annual standardized tests so that students aren’t spending too much time taking them.
Some New York state school districts — starting with the Ossining Union Free School District — told schools that instead of having parents who don’t want their children taking tests to formally “opt out,” schools should instead assume that opting out is the default position and that parents should “opt in.” Meanwhile, FairTest said that in the first week of April, 15 times as many people visited its website to learn about opting out of tests than had visited during the same period last year.
Underscoring how broad-based the opposition to testing is, teachers unions are saying similar things as Republican senators.
Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said at a Senate confirmation hearing that they “take a lot of time away from classroom instruction and they are stressful for children and quite frankly for teachers.”
He asked Cindy Marten, superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District who has been nominated to be the Education Department’s No. 2 official, why the tests were still being required: “On top of that, the federal accountability requirements have been waived. So why can’t we also waive the federal testing requirement just for this year and let local school districts and classroom teachers use their normal classroom test to measure student learning?”
The Chicago Teachers Union, in a news release announcing a session for parents, teachers and other community members to learn how to opt out of the tests, said: “We were disappointed when the new Biden administration, despite a promise on the campaign trail to end federal testing, said that states wouldn’t be able to waive federally mandated testing for 2021.”
“Although the Illinois State Board of Ed is making some changes to how testing affects state school ratings, and some districts will be holding testing in the fall, for the most part annual testing is going ahead as normal,” it said. “This is not what we should be doing as a school system in a pandemic.”