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The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We’re being tested by the coronavirus in many ways — not even student exams are immune


The national movement against annual state tests in schools never got further than a 20 percent opt-out rate, and that was just in New York state. I bet an invisible spiky virus will wipe out most, if not all, of those tests this year without issuing a single news release.

The latest recommendations from President Trump appear to call for no gatherings larger than 10 people for the next eight weeks. Most state tests are scheduled to start during that time. As the days go by, one powerful thought will grow in the minds of local and state school board members who authorize the exams: Why bother?

At least 16 states so far have canceled their testing or asked permission to do so.

As has been shown in recent days, it is easier and quicker to stop doing something — such as playing professional basketball games — than to do something, such as producing millions of testing kits. My grandsons, their school closed, would vote unanimously for no tests. Their father and mother, both working at home, would be too busy to object.

I can’t think of any powerful group that would strongly oppose test cancellation. Teacher unions don’t defend the tests. Neither do parents, though I suspect they would want them back next year. I cannot think of a single politician who would campaign to drag children into testing rooms. Given the distractions, if the tests were given this year the scores would suffer. What state governor wants to add that to the pile of troubles?

Educators I know around the country see the need to dump the tests as obvious. Jack Baldermann, principal of Westmont High School in Illinois, said his school is closed and that “we may be out for more than a month. That does not seem like the time to have students return” for testing.

Tom Loveless, a former Brookings Institution scholar who has written widely on testing, said, “I’m guessing a lot of states will cancel their grades three to eight tests, especially if schools remain closed longer than anticipated.” They would have to get waivers from the federal government, he said, “but I’d be surprised if that was a problem.”

Eric Hanushek, a scholar at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, said the tests are still necessary “to keep students on the learning path.” Because of this year’s unusual stresses, he suggested giving the tests but suspending “any potential penalties for bad results this year.”

Bob Schaeffer, interim executive director of FairTest: National Center for Fair & Open Testing, said he expects canceling the annual testing will become the default policy if schools don’t reopen in early April, when most tests are scheduled. States that use the tests in deciding on high school graduation, third-grade retention and teacher evaluations will have to find other ways to do that, he said.

Historian, activist and best-selling author Diane Ravitch, famous leader of the anti-testing movement, told me she believes most tests will be canceled but return next year. “The tests are useless, but our leaders don’t have the courage or wisdom to acknowledge it,” she said.

There may also be more cancellations of college entrance tests. Two nationwide sessions of those tests in April and May were canceled in recent days, with the ACT scheduled for April 4 postponed till June 13, and the SAT scheduled for May 2 canceled outright.

That could affect the debate among leaders of the University of California whether to stop requiring those exams for admission. College-level tests for high school students, including Advanced Placement, also face challenges. Not only are they often administered in large proctored rooms such as school libraries, but they also are graded by huge gatherings of veteran AP teachers and college professors at major hotels in June.

AP and the similar International Baccalaureate program have the advantage of being part of courses that are popular in high schools, so they will survive. State tests are merely tolerated, weakening their chances of being used this year.

Ravitch is correct, however, about how deeply woven those tests are into our culture. They might not be given this year, but they will be back.

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