The U.S. Department of Education announced Monday that schools will still be required to administer standardized tests for the 2020-2021 school year despite months of upheaval in which many students failed to step foot inside a school building.
The decision was made without the leadership of Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary, according to an Education Department spokesperson. Cardona has not yet been confirmed, leaving senior department leadership, including Acting Secretary of Education Phil Rosenfelt, to make a call amid urgent questions from states about whether to plan for exams.
While testing will go on, the Biden administration is offering significant flexibility to states in how to administer the exams. Schools will be able to provide tests remotely, they will be able to give the tests in summer or fall, or make the tests shorter. The department is also inviting states to apply for waivers that would free them of some of the accountability provisions tied to testing, including one that requires 95% participation. No student should be brought into school just to take a test if they’re not able to do so safely, the department told states’ chief school officers.
The decision to continue testing is designed to give schools more tools to assess how their students have been faring during a year when education has been transformed. The Education Department is encouraging schools not to tie the scores to grades or grade retention but to use them to shed light on how different groups of students are performing and to provide targeted support to help get students up to speed.
Some states will begin administering tests as early as March. The department was rushed to make a decision on the issue, a spokesperson said, as planning for assessments often starts months prior. Before the Education Department’s decision, nearly 30 states had already submitted waivers related to testing accountability measures or assessments in general, and the Biden administration faced pressure to provide them with a response.
In March 2020, the Education Department under President Donald Trump allowed states to cancel standardized testing for the year as school shutdowns began. In September, before Biden was elected president, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos told states to expect standardized tests this year.
The Biden administration’s move was met with widespread praise from most education stakeholders, who said the move will provide essential information to schools on learning loss and achievement gaps. The nation’s two largest teachers unions, though, were more critical, taking aim at the inherent value of these exams.
“While its plan does offer the option for testing modifications and waivers for accountability requirements, which is a start, it misses a huge opportunity to really help our students by allowing the waiver of assessments and the substitution, instead, of locally developed, authentic assessments that could be used by educators and parents as a baseline for work this summer and next year,” Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a written statement.
“Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now. 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,” said National Education Association President Becky Pringle.
Around the country, school administrators are estimating how many of their students will opt out of the tests or fail to show up.
“We’re not sure what kind of situation we’re going to have with students who don’t feel comfortable coming in or refuse to come in,” said Ron Phipps, associate superintendent for data and accountability at Cumberland County Schools in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
Though Phipps’s district is currently online only, it is moving to a hybrid schedule in March. Students who opt to continue to study remotely will be asked to come to school for testing days only. Phipps is relieved to know where the Biden administration stands, he said, because he was worried states would be left in limbo, left without getting enough planning time to design tests that work for their students.
Aaron Spence, superintendent of Virginia Beach City Public Schools, is disappointed with the administration’s decision. He questions the value of the data provided by testing this year if it’s difficult to compare to previous years. In a year already marked by trauma for many students and staff, he worries about how a big exam will affect students’ mental health. When his school provided end-of-semester tests in January, which students were only able to take in-person, more students opted not to participate than in years past.
“I wish they would reconsider,” Spence said of the Biden administration. “I think this will increase anxiety where we have the ability to decrease anxiety.”
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