Pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Grows: Cancel Standardized Tests in this Crazy COVID-19 School Year

There is absolutely no reason why the U.S. Department of Education should refuse to grant states waivers this spring from the federal requirement for standardized testing. Two weeks ago, a Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum released guidance telling states they must test students as required by the Every Student Succeeds Act despite the pandemic. After that, the Senate finally voted to confirm President Biden’s appointment of Miguel Cardona as Secretary of Education.

We all hope that Dr. Cardona will reconsider. And it is becoming clear that the subject is not closed.  Experts, parents, educators, and members of the public continue to press the new Secretary of Education to do the right thing in this year when some students have been in school, many are on hybrid schedules, and many others continue to learn remotely.

Why should Secretary Cardona cancel testing this spring? When Rosenblum announced that he was charging ahead to require testing, he ignored more than a month of informed advocacy by board of education members, education experts, school administrators, schoolteachers and parents—all pushing the Department of Education to grant states waivers to cancel the tests in this COVID-19 year. (See here, here, here, and here.) No one in the Department has provided a convincing justification for requiring that the high-stakes tests be administered this school year.

Opponents of testing this spring have spoken about problems of feasibility when some students are in class and others learning remotely, and they have raised serious questions about the validity and comparability of the information that can be collected during these times. Others question whether time should be wasted on testing when teachers need to be putting all of their energy into supporting students’ well-being and learning instead of test prep and test administration. While some have argued that teachers need the test results to guide their instruction once schools reopen, testing experts have continued to point out that teachers won’t get overall results for months and will never learn about individual students’ answers to particular multiple choice questions. Others have pointed out that these tests have been required for two decades not for any kind of pedagogical purpose but instead to be used for so-called accountability: so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

A letter from 74 national organizations and more than 10,000 individuals sent to Secretary Cardona on January 30, 2021—after he had been appointed but before his nomination had been confirmed—describes in plain language exactly what should happen when children can return normally to their classrooms: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic value when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

New pushback against mandated testing has emerged this week.

On Tuesday, several Congressional Democrats sent a letter pressing Secretary Cardona to cancel the tests.  Politico‘s Michael Stratford reports: “The effort is being led by Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), vice chair of the House education committee and a former middle school principal… The letter to Cardona… was also signed by Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), Tom Suozzi (D-NY), and Mark Takano (D-Calif.) as well as Sens Ed. Markey (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY)… Bowman, who said he’s had ‘preliminary conversations’ with fellow lawmakers about a legislative path to stopping standardized testing, also took aim at how the Biden administration’s decision was carried out last month. The new testing guidance was unveiled by the Education Department on Feb. 22, before Cardona was confirmed by the Senate. The guidance was signed by Ian Rosenblum, former executive director of the Education Trust-New York.”  Rep. Bowman explains, “Mr. Rosenblum, with all due respect, has never been a teacher or school administrator in his life, and it’s important that our parents and educators know that these decisions are being made by people who do not have the experience to make those decisions.”

Also on Tuesday, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association did something extremely unusual. AFT and NEA released a shared agenda outlining the best thinking of their members and their collaborative research departments and  pledged to work with states and school districts on the steps that must be taken not only to get students back in school but also to support children’s academic progress and their psychological and social well-being after a difficult year.

Part I of this joint document from the two unions that together represent millions of American teachers begins with a plea on behalf of children for relief this spring from the federal standardized testing mandate: “In February 2021, the U.S. Department of Education issued guidance on assessing student learning during the pandemic in relation to the requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Prior to that, both the NEA and AFT stressed the need for flexibility in both the administration of assessments and their use in accountability, and both advised that standardized testing should be suspended for the 2020-202 school year. Standardized test scores have never been a valid, reliable or complete measure of an individual’s instruction, nor do they accurately measure what students know and are able to do. And they are especially problematic now. The assessment flexibilities offered by the department, while helpful, do not go far enough to allow states to support the gathering of information and the distribution of resources in a way that will support teaching, learning and healthy school environments.”  The statement continues with thoughtfully and professionally developed suggestions for “the way forward,” including all sorts of examples of diagnostic assessments that have been developed by educators in collaboration with respected academic research partners and local community partners.

It is not too late for the rest of us to add our voices to those of academicians, members of Congress, the two major teachers unions, and other advocates. Pressure on Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to reassess the need for federally mandated, high-stakes standardized testing in the 2020-2021 school year remains timely and important.

FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, offers the following guidance for advocates:

  • “Push the U.S. Department of Education and Congress to reverse plans to deny comprehensive testing waivers;
  • “Pressure states to request maximum possible student assessment flexibility for the current year by pushing the envelope of the waivers USDOE already has said will be granted;
  • “Simultaneously, push states and districts to suspend their own testing mandates for the 2020-2021 school year and lift all high-stakes consequences for students, teachers and schools;
  • “Pursue these policies in the context of promoting well-rounded, authentic assessment systems developed in partnership with educators; and
  • “If Spring 2021 testing policies are not overhauled consistent with these goals, aggressively promote broad, diverse standardized exam opt-out campaigns.”

4 thoughts on “Pressure on Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Grows: Cancel Standardized Tests in this Crazy COVID-19 School Year

  1. This might be the time for some good old-fashioned civil disobedience. School leaders should just say “NO” and put the ball back in the DOE court. If enough schools resist, Cardona will step back. This administration will not take any punitive measures. Then we can do it again next year, and the year after, and the year after that ad infinitum!

    • I’m with you! A bail out for the testing industry is all that this is. They are like cockroaches exposed to the light right now.

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