The national standardized test regarded as a crucial barometer of student achievement could be postponed until 2022 due to the coronavirus, the Education Department announced Wednesday.

Federal officials said that too many students are participating in virtual learning or are attending schools that prohibit outside visitors, making it impossible to effectively administer the exam.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos called on the National Center for Education Statistics — a branch of the Education Department responsible for the federal tests — to stop any further spending in preparation for the January exam. She also wrote in a letter to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) that removing the mandate to take the test should be an act of Congress and called on legislators to postpone it.

The National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the NAEP, often referred to as the “nation’s report card,” is a closely watched exam because it assesses the performance of children from all racial and socioeconomic backgrounds in urban, suburban and rural communities.

Students in the fourth and eighth grades were scheduled to take the every-other-year reading and math exams in 2021. The government first administered a version of the exam in 1990.

DeVos encouraged states to administer their own assessments later in the current academic year.

“The 2021 NAEP tests would have shed light on the significant learning loss following the school closures last spring and the widespread failure to reopen schools this fall,” DeVos wrote. “While the data would have been helpful, the much more valuable and actionable measures of learning loss will be the annual assessments required of states by the Every Student Succeeds Act.”

James Woodworth, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, also said in a statement that state assessments should “serve as a bridge” until the NAEP is administered in 2022.

Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said there is a “moral imperative” to collect data showing the scope of the learning loss during the pandemic. They said the delay of the NAEP is “unfortunate” but “understandable.”

The lawmakers called on the federal government to work with states to ensure that they administer federally mandated state exams.

“Existing achievement gaps are widening for our most vulnerable students, including students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color,” they wrote. “In order for our nation to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we must first understand the magnitude of learning loss that has impacted students across the country. That cannot happen without assessment data.”

DeVos also called on Congress to reconsider how to fund the exam, suggesting the government move to testing students only every four years. She said this could save $20 million every time the test is administered.

While the fourth- and eighth-grade English and math exams are the most prominent NAEP-mandated exams, the federal agency also administers tests in other subjects for different grade levels in staggered years.

“Despite the growing costs and complexity, the country still benefits from reliable, periodic national measures of academic progress, but perhaps not at the current pace,” DeVos wrote. “It seems clear that the costs of conducting the core NAEP tests every two years far outweigh the benefits of marginally enhancing well-established achievement trend lines.”

Carissa Moffat Miller, chief executive of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents top education officials in every state, said in a statement that it supported the education secretary’s decision.

“I recognize this was not an easy decision,” the statement read. “But I believe it is the right one based on what we know today about this virus and its impact on schools.”

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