Cardona’s Flexibility on Standardized Testing Creates Confusion and Rancor

After a chaotic schoolyear including remote learning and sometimes complicated hybrid schedules of in-person and remote learning, students are returning to full-time school to face the annual standardized tests. These are the tests that Congress requires under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the tests first required by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). They are the foundation of a two-decade-old scheme to hold schools accountable. Betsy DeVos cancelled required standardized testing last spring after schools shut down as the pandemic struck the Unites States.

The U.S. Department of Education announced in late February, before Education Secretary Miguel Cardona was even confirmed, that it is requiring standardized testing this spring. There is a whole lot of confusion between the federal government and the states right now because the federal guidance about testing this year features “flexibility.”

Here is some of the letter, dated February 22, 2021, from acting assistant secretary of education, Ian Rosenblum, a letter which informed states they must test students this year: “We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year… We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements… A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year… Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public… It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup… As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices.”

The letter explains further what is permissible: “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices… We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.  A state should use that flexibility to consider: administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. This could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021 school year.”

As you might expect, states and school districts are responding in very different ways to the federal requirement that testing continue as usual. The New York Daily News reports: “New York City will hold in-person standardized tests for elementary and middle school students this spring…. But districts have extra latitude this year on how to set up their exams, and New York City education officials said that they will only offer the exams to families who opt in.”

New Jersey Spotlight‘s John Mooney reports that Cardona’s Department of Education has given the state permission to put off testing until next fall and offer a different, shorter test: “In a letter this week, the federal Department of Education said the state’s plan to conduct a shorter test in the fall—“Start Strong”—would suffice in meeting federal requirements for annual testing, as long as districts continue less formal, in-class assessments this spring as well.”

And U.S. NewsLauren Camera reports that Secretary Cardona’s Department of Education seems to have contradicted itself by granting a district-wide testing waiver for this school year to the District of Columbia: “The decision, outlined in a letter sent to District of Columbia Public Schools officials on Wednesday, cites the staggering number of students who are still learning fully remote more than a year after the onset of the pandemic—roughly 88% of the city’s 51,000 students as of the end of March—and the likelihood that little usable data would be gleaned by administering a test to the few students who are learning in person. ‘Very few students would be able to be assessed in person this spring,’ Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, wrote in the letter. ‘This would also likely result in D.C. education officials not being able to report much, if any data, due to minimum subgroup size for reporting and the need to protect personally identifiable information.'”

Camera adds that Rosenblum’s blanket waiver to the D.C. public schools “has drawn the ire of education officials in other states, including Georgia, New York, and South Carolina” who also submitted formal requests for blanket state waivers this school year.

For Education Week, Andrew Ujifusa and Evie Blad explain that, while the Department of Education approved a request from Oregon to reduce the number of tests given this spring and a similar request from Colorado, it has rejected a formal request from Michigan despite “the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the state and the decision by Detroit schools and other Michigan districts to shift back to remote learning this week.”

Two months of protests—from deans of colleges of education, more than 500 educational researchers, experts on the dangers of the use of standardized testing for school accountability since the passage of No Child Behind, and both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association—have made little difference.

Lauren Camera reports that Secretary Miguel Cardona continues to claim: “Using statewide assessments to assess where students are are one indicator we can use to make sure the $130 billion in the American Rescue Plan is going toward the students who have the greatest need and have the most deficit.”  But the testing scheme created by No Child Left Behind has never driven financial support to the school districts serving the nation’s poorest students whose needs are greatest.  The standardized tests have always been the foundation for test-and-punish accountability, driving reforms like state takeovers and school closures and state report cards that brand the poorest communities with F-rated schools.

It would now appear that the Department’s “flexible” guidance is already creating rancor and chaos as states struggle to comply and officials notice that the rules are not being applied consistently.  And as Peter Greene recently pointed out in his Forbes column, the testing this year cannot possibly create valid or reliable data:

“It is completely understandable that education leaders and policymakers and even editorial kibbitzers would like to have a clear, data-rich description of where students across the country are right now. There’s just one problem. They can’t have it. They certainly can’t get it from the Big Standardized Test. That’s in part because it will be anything but a standardized test. D.C. has been given a waiver based on the number of students attending school remotely, which means that other districts also qualify under the Education Department’s ideas about flexibility. New York City schools are the first to make the tests opt-in, meaning only the students who choose to take them will. Across the country, some students will take the test remotely, and some will take it in school… Some number of students across the country will opt out. Some will take a shorter version of the test. Some will test in the spring, and some in the fall. Other students will take the test carrying any number of traumas with them from home. And many students will take the test without the usual weeks of test prep, so that their answers will not reflect a lack of skills or knowledge, but a lack of familiarity with the language and expectations of the testing format itself. In short, nothing about the taking of the test will be standardized. The 2021 tests will generate a spoonful of data dissolved in an ocean of noise…. Nor will there be a useful framework into which the data can be plugged. Any comparison of 2021 data to where students are ‘supposed’ to be requires data crunchers to extrapolate data from two years ago, creating test results that they imagine would have happened this year in a universe without a pandemic.” (emphasis in the original)

The Hubris of Billionaire Philanthropy and the Damage Wrought by the Common Core Standards

Hubris is definitely the tragic flaw in the modern, technocratic tragedy of educational experimentation by mega philanthropy. But there will likely be no tragic fall for a noble hero. The plot doesn’t operate like a classical tragedy. Bill and Melinda pose as our humble hero and heroine, sitting in front of a bookcase and dressed in nothing fancier than plain cashmere sweaters. There is no blood and no sensation. Today the weapon is billions of American dollars buying access to power and purchasing armies of ideological policy wonks. Most people haven’t even noticed the sins of our hero and heroine and there’s no hint of their impending downfall. The plot rises and falls and rises again when the perpetrators just start over with another massive experiment on the 50 million students in America’s public schools and their teachers. But the sin is hubris.

In a February report on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s annual letter, the Washington Post‘s  Valerie Strauss summarizes the three acts so far in the drama of Gates Foundation-funded school reform: “The Gates Foundation began its first big effort in education reform two decades ago with what it said was a $650 million investment to break large failing high schools into small schools, on the theory that small schools worked better than large ones… Bill Gates declared in 2009 that it hadn’t worked the way he had expected…. The next project for the foundation was funding the development, implementation and promotion of the Common Core State Standards initiative, which was supported by the Obama administration. It originally had bipartisan support but the Core became controversial, in part because of the rush to get it into schools and because of what many states said was federal coercion to adopt it… Meanwhile, Gates, while pushing the Core, showered three public school systems and four charter management organizations with hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and implement teacher assessment systems that incorporated student standardized test scores. School systems and charter organizations that took the foundation’s money were required to use public funds on the project, too.  By 2013, Bill Gates conceded that the Core initiative had not succeeded as he had expected, and a 2018 report concluded that the teacher evaluation project had failed to achieve its goal of improving student achievement in any significant way.”

Many of us who were paying attention noticed the collateral damage. When they took Gates money to break up big high schools, school districts had to hire a separate set of administrators and counselors for each small school—a very expensive proposition that ate up far more money than Gates provided. And students scheduled within their small schools struggled to find access to the advantages of a comprehensive high school—a journalism class, band and orchestra, arts electives like photography, technology courses. The experiment on evaluating teachers by students’ test scores and rewarding the teachers whose students posted high scores with financial bonuses collapsed after school districts had to absorb much of the cost.  In Hillsborough County, Florida, the district ended up using public revenues to cover $124 million that should have been spent on the ongoing education needs of the district’s students.

Strauss published part of the Gates Foundation’s 2020 annual letter, in which Melinda Gates describes the strategy of the Foundation’s education giving: “Consider this: The average American primary school classroom has 21 students. Currently, 18 of those 21 complete high school with a diploma or an equivalent credential… but only 13 start any kind of postsecondary program within a year of graduating. Only seven will earn a degree from a four-year-program within six years. It gets worse when you disaggregate by race. If every student in our classroom is Latinx, only six will finish their four-year degree program within six years. For a classroom of Black students, the number is just four. The fact that progress has been harder to achieve than we hoped is no reason to give up, though. Just the opposite. We believe the risk of not doing everything we can to help students reach their full potential is much, much greater. We certainly understand why many people are skeptical about the idea of billionaire philanthropists designing classroom innovations or setting education policy. Frankly, we are, too. Bill and I have always been clear that our role isn’t to generate ideas ourselves; it’s to support innovation driven by people who have spent their careers working in education: teachers, administrators, researchers, and community leaders. But one thing that makes improving education tricky is that even among people who work on the issues, there isn’t much agreement on what works and what doesn’t.”

Notice that Melinda Gates assumes that “failing” schools are the causes of disparities in educational outcomes and that fixing the schools themselves—small high schools, grading teachers on students’ scores and offering financial incentives to successful teachers, and the Common Core standards—will somehow address the much deeper injustices for America’s children. There are libraries filled with research demonstrating that family and community economic circumstances compounded by racial and economic segregation and chronically inequitable school funding are the primary drivers of educational inequality, but the Gates Foundation has always dabbled in technocratic fixes and always failed to improve students’ outcomes.

On Monday, Valerie Strauss reprinted with the author’s permission some of Harvard education professor, Tom Loveless’s new book, Between the State and the Schoolhouse: Understanding The Failure of Common Core, a new followup examination of one of Gates’ three failed initiatives.

Loveless explains: “The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) represent one of the most ambitious American education reforms of the past century.  Developed in 2009 and released in June 2010, the standards were designed to define what students should learn in mathematics and English language arts… from kindergarten through the twelfth grade… By the end of 2010, more than forty states and the District of Columbia had adopted the CCSS as official K-12 standards… A decade later, scant evidence exists that Common Core produced any significant benefit. One federally funded evaluation actually estimates that the standards had a negative effect on student achievement in both reading and math. Fortunately, the overall impact is quite small.”

The federal government is, by law, not permitted to establish a national educational curriculum, but Arne Duncan figured out how to skirt the law. The Gates Foundation paid for the development, implementation, and promotion of the standards; Duncan merely incentivized the states to adopt them when he made the adoption of educational standards a requirement for applying for a Race to the Top Grant.

Loveless continues: “If we conclude that CCSS had a minimal impact on student learning, perhaps the standards changed other aspects of education in a productive manner. Even if such a possibility is conceded, the policy’s extraordinary costs and the ferocious debate that it engendered outstripped such meager benefits. Billions of taxpayer dollars, from both federal and state coffers, were poured into making CCSS a success. Prominent philanthropies, led by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, funded a public relations campaign to fight back against political opposition. The nation’s three-million-plus public school teachers were asked to retool their instruction and use new curriculum materials aligned with Common Core; large numbers of students began failing new Common Core-aligned assessments; and many parents struggled to understand the strange new homework assignments that students were bringing to the kitchen table.”

Loveless summarizes what he says are the many lessons of the sad adventure of Gates’ purchase of public education policy via the Common Core. What was it that Gates Foundation policy wonks and Arne Duncan’s education department failed to consider? Please read Loveless’s careful analysis, but here are some of his conclusions: “Implementation of large-scale, top-down education policy transpires in a complicated system that is multilayered and loosely coupled in terms of authority and expertise. Common Core is not a federal policy, although it received crucial support from the federal government during the Obama administration but it is national in scope, originally involving more than forty states and Washington, DC. States have their own political offices and educational bureaucracies, of course, but consider some ballpark numbers for the nodes of political and organizational authority situated below the state level: approximately 13,600 school districts… 98,000 schools, and more than three million teachers…..  Navigating the vertical complexity of the K-12 educational system is daunting… the main lesson of the study was that schools shape state policies to fit local circumstances.”

Further, “Curriculum and instruction are particularly important because they constitute the technical core of the educational enterprise… They sit at the bottom layer of the system. Writing and adopting standards takes place at the top of the system, in the domain of politicians and educational officials… Successful implementation of standards not only depends on the willingness of implementers but also on the quality of the curriculum and instruction that local educators use to enact the standards… The publisher of a terrific K-8 math series may also publish a terrible reading series; a math program with strong second and sixth grade texts may be weak in first and fourth grades…  The two subjects that Common Core tackles, mathematics and English language arts, have long histories of ideological debates between educational progressives and traditionalists.”

In their hubris, Bill and Melinda and their foundation latched onto one big educational reform, but in their hurried launch, they forgot about a carefully coordinated and internally evaluated rollout of the standards and the high-stakes tests that were paired with the standards. They also neglected working at each level of the system with the professionals they assumed would grab on to their idea and make it work. Loveless considers what was left out of the process: “Once governments have decided on a policy decision, how does it become enacted in schools? Exploring that question compels an examination of the school system’s organizational structure and the flow of policy downward from policymakers to practitioners.” That is, of course, separate from another important issue: whether Gates’s experts developed and promoted the right standards.

I Have Begun to Worry about Where Miguel Cardona is Leading Education Policy

When my careful, watchful, and somewhat shy daughter came home for lunch on the first day of first grade, I heard the words every parent looks for on the first day of school: “After one morning, I already feel smoothed into school!” There are generations of parents in Cleveland Heights, Ohio who still wonder at the gifts, kindness, and dedication of Marlene Karkoska. What was it that she did to make our first graders feel “smoothed into school”?

What worries me right now is that despite the passage of the American Rescue Plan with lots of money for school districts and state governments to help get schools back up and running, I am still hearing a lot from policy makers about learning loss, the need for kids to make up the work in summer programs, and the need for testing to document what’s been lost. I’m not hearing enough about the calm, the encouragement, the confidence, and the enjoyment of being at school that Miss Karkoska provided for our children as the very foundation for their learning to read and compute.

Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s announcement last week that the federal government will mandate standardized testing for this school year came despite months of pleading for cancellation of this year’s standardized tests—advice from experts who know a lot about working with children, about learning theory, and about the problems of standardized test-based accountability for schools. My children started Kindergarten in 1985 and 1988, before standardized testing became the driver of American public education.  I wonder if people who have been creating education policy since the 1990s, when holding schools accountable for test score outcomes became the primary educational policy goal, can really imagine another way to think about education.

I have many questions about the strategies and plans which the U.S. Department of Education will attach to the federal stimulus awards of funds to states and schools.  One reason for my concern is that I watched the awarding of stimulus dollars to states during the Great Recession back in 2009 under Arne Duncan.  Here is some of what I worry about:

  • Will there be any real attempt when students return to school to ensure that the focus is on welcome and encouragement, and on spiraling the curriculum to review material that may have been missed as students accelerate into exploring new material?  What is to prevent the numbing drilling that has filled too many classrooms, particularly in the schools that serve our nation’s poorest children?  I recently read one suggestion that when students return, the curriculum should be further narrowed to compensate for learning loss with an intense and sole focus on language arts and math, an almost humorous suggestion if it weren’t such a blatant plea for raising test scores at all cost in the two areas the federal government already mandates standardized tests.
  • I have read that American Rescue Plan dollars can be spent on teachers and school support staff to reduce class size and add sufficient counselors and social workers. That is a very good thing, but will the federal government, as it awards dollars for these added staff, incentivize states themselves to continue to allocate adequate state funds to ensure that schools can continue employing these professionals into the future after the one-time federal grant runs out? I remember so well that Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top and School Improvement Grants supported the employment of armies of one-time consultants but virtually no hiring of long term professional educators and student support staff.
  • Although most of the federal aid for school districts is being distributed through the Title I formula, some of the federal stimulus dollars in the American Rescue Plan will flow through the state governments which control the allocation of school funding. I know there are some “maintenance of effort” rules in the federal stimulus bill, but are they strong enough and will they be enforced? Can the federal government create enough regulations to prevent states from further slashing state taxes and replacing state dollars with federal stimulus dollars? Will there be rules to direct the states to spend needed money on public schools and not on expanding charter schools and private school tuition vouchers?
  • Secretary Cardona says he believes that standardized test scores in this school year can tell us more about the need for added funding in the nation’s school districts serving concentrations of poor children. Will we learn more from standardized test scores than we already know from the data currently maintained in the fifty states and collected by the National Center for Education Statistics?  There is plenty of data already available about disparities in class sizes, the number of per-pupil guidance counselors, and the number of school social workers and school psychologists.  Further, we all watched a wave of teachers’ strikes and walkouts across the states in 2018 and 2019 through which teachers exposed appalling conditions—masses of students in large classes—sometimes 40 students—counselors with case loads of 400 and 500 students—the absence of nurses, librarians.

In A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, Jack Schneider and Jennifer Berkshire summarize the financial dilemma in which public schools found themselves at the time the COVID-19 pandemic struck: “Almost every state reduced spending on public education during the Great Recession (2008), but some states went much further, making deep cuts to schools, while taking aim at teachers and their unions… Moreover, states including Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, and North Carolina also moved to permanently reduce the funds available for education by cutting the taxes that pay for schools and other public services.”  Schneider and Berkshire describe what we learned from the nationwide teacher strikes in 2018-2019: “(T)he recent wave of teacher walkouts from California to North Carolina, and the widespread public support they attracted, indicate just how unpopular the cost-cutting crusade has become. There is simply no constituency demanding huge class sizes, four-day school weeks, or the use of uncertified educators to stanch a growing teacher shortage in states where pay has plummeted.  In low-spending states like Arizona and Oklahoma, what began as teacher rebellions morphed into broad-based political movements against austerity.” (A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door, pp. 35-43)

In Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black adds that the growth of school privatization has left us with a charter school sector and the expansion of publicly funded tuition vouchers for private schools at the expense of the public schools:  “(W)hat those who push back against vouchers and charters have not fully articulated is that these measures also cross the Rubicon for our democracy. As new voucher and charter bills lock in the privatization of education, they lock in the underfunding of public education.”   And the new trends are not race-neutral: “(S)tates with the highest percentages of minorities have twice the level of privatization as predominantly white states. Public school funding, or lack thereof, is the flipside of this privatization movement.”  (Schoolhouse Burning, pp. 238-240)

In a profound, short analysis in The Progressive, Diane Ravitch summarizes two decades of test-and-punish accountability and the growth of school privatization.  Here is her very plain, simple recommendation for Education Secretary Miguel Cardona: “Cardona could help urban schools, which are underfunded, by ending the pretense that competition (via charters and vouchers) will make them better (it doesn’t).  It starves them of needed resources. Urban districts don’t need testing, standards, accountability, and competition. We have poured billions of dollars into that fake reform and achieved little other than demoralized teachers and students whose test-centric education robs them of motivation. Why not try a radically different approach?  Why not fully fund the schools where the needs of students are greatest?… Make sure that schools that serve the neediest students have experienced teachers, small classes, and a full curriculum that includes the arts and time for play.  Now that would be a revolution!

Educational Researchers Demand Cancellation of Spring 2021 Tests: Secretary Cardona Won’t Cancel, but Says In Future He May Reexamine Role of Testing

On Tuesday, in remarks at the annual legislative conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the new Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona declared that he will not bow to pressure and will instead continue demanding that standardized tests be administrated this year again as usual, despite that COVID-19 has utterly upended another school year.  Last year Betsy DeVos cancelled the tests as schools shut down in March.

The Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported on Wednesday: “A day after more than 500 education researchers asked Education Secretary Miguel Cardona not to force school districts to administer federally mandated student standardized tests this year during the coronavirus pandemic, Cardona said Tuesday that policymakers needed the data obtained from the exams…. (H)e said student data obtained from the tests was important to help education officials create policy and target resources where they are most needed… Cardona said Tuesday that he would be willing to ‘reexamine what role assessments’ play in education—but not immediately. ‘This is not the year for a referendum on assessments, but I am open to conversations on how to make those better,’ he said.”

On Monday, 548 researchers from the nation’s colleges of education sent a joint letter urgently asking Secretary Cardona to cancel the federally required standardized achievement tests in grades 3-8 and once in high school. America’s standardized testing regime was mandated in January of 2002 in the No Child Left Behind Act and, in 2015, folded into that law’s successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act.  The federal government set up the testing regime as the foundation of a massive school accountability scheme that ranked and rated America’s public schools and set out to turnaround (mostly through a cascade of sanctions) the poorest performing schools as measured by the tests. It was said that all of America’s youth would score “proficient” by 2014. Today we know that the law did not improve academic achievement overall and that it failed to close academic achievement gaps by race and family economics. In fact damage for students, their schools, and their teachers followed instead.

The letter, sent to Cardona on Monday from a large body of academic researchers in education, directly questions the value of forcing public schools to administer standardized tests this spring as being not only impractical and burdensome for school districts when some students are learning in class and others online, but unlikely to produce complete or reliable data. The letter was sent on behalf of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and the Beyond Test Scores Project, and authored by Jack Schneider at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell, and Lorrie Shephard, Michelle Renee Valladares, and Kevin Welner at the University of Colorado, Boulder. A list several pages long contains the names of 544 additional academic researchers.

Here are the concerns the researchers identify about the gathering of data through standardized tests this spring: “First, we strongly urge USED to work with states to approve requests for flexibility as they attempt to limit statewide testing, especially in states where significant numbers of students are still engaged in remote learning and where the state request has identified alternative data sources that can meet state needs.  This recommendation is based on the following: The results of remotely administered tests will not be equivalent to the results of in-person testing. Great variability in participation rates and non-random selection bias make it impossible to compare results across schools or between this year and previous years… (T)here is no way to prevent misinterpretation and misuse of these highly flawed data.”

The researchers also caution about the use of data, once gathered, from any administration of standardized tests this year: “We applaud USED’s recent decision to emphasize the importance of data for informational purposes, rather than high-stakes accountability. In light of research evidence, we wish to underscore the importance of continuing this practice in the future. For decades, experts have warned that the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results. Analyzing the impact of NCLB/ESSA, scholars have documented consequences like curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating… The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting… Whatever their flaws, test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand that they be addressed.  But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa interviewed Secretary Cardona. Ujifusa asked about Cardona’s decision to continue standardized tests this year, while being willing to work with states and offer some degree of flexibility. In his answer, Cardona expresses some of the same concerns the researchers raise in Monday’s letter about the past two decades’ uses of standardized testing: “To be overly enamored by data is to be vulnerable to their misuse.  So we have to keep in perspective what the data will tell us and what it won’t tell us. It should never be even considered at this point for (labeling) schools as high-achieving schools, or low-achieving schools. We need to forget about that. We also shouldn’t be utilizing data for (educator) evaluations, because it’s not valid for that this year. However, as we’re rolling out $130 billion (in federal COVID-19 aid for schools), any data that can help state leaders think about policy and distribution of funds, to make sure that it’s aimed at closing achievement gaps and (addressing) lack of access to quality learning, that’s critically important. The team has been working at the agency, even before I joined, on flexibilities. We know that one size doesn’t fit all. We know in come places, they’ve been in schools since day one. In other places they’re just starting to get in. So flexibility is critically important.” (Parenthetical statements are Ujifusa’s.)

While Secretary Cardona seems to share some of the researchers’ concerns, we will need to observe his actions carefully in upcoming months as he takes over a federal department that has been mired for twenty years in a scheme organized to stigmatize and punish the schools and teachers serving poor children. These tests have never been used to drive the allocation of resources on a scale that would help the students in the school districts where our society’s poorest children are segregated. Will Cardona change a department which has tried to shape up low scoring schools by inducing states to punish and sometimes fire the principal and the teachers, or by imposing school closures or state takeovers, or by encouraging states to locate privatized charter schools or offer private school vouchers to students in those districts?

In his recent book, Schoolhouse Burning, Derek Black highlights the massive school funding inequity that has endured throughout the past twenty years of standardized, test-based school accountability: “(W)hen it comes to districts serving primarily middle income students, most states provide those districts with the resources they need to achieve average outcomes… The average state provides districts serving predominantly poor students $6,239 less per pupil than they need. (Schoolhouse Burning, p. 241)

Is President Biden a Supporter of Standardized Testing After All?

A week ago a newly appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Department of Education’s Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, Ian Rosenblum announced that this spring, the Department will require the annual standardized testing mandated first by No Child Left Behind, and now by its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act. Last year, when COVID-19 shut down schools, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the federally mandated tests.

Rosenblum’s announcement followed more than a month of 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.  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 so that the federal government can require states to rate and rank their public schools and devise plans to turnaround the low scorers.

Organized efforts to press the U.S. Department of Education to cancel the tests this spring have included letters from national and state education organizations and academic experts.  The Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss published a letter to Miguel Cardona from hundreds of deans of the nation’s colleges of education which Strauss summarizes: “It said that, ‘problems abound with high-stakes standardized testing of students, particularly regarding validity, reliability, fairness, bias, and cost’ and the coronavirus pandemic has made those problems worse.”  Additionally, in February 74 national, state and local organizations along with 10,732 Americans sent a letter to Dr. Cardona asking the Department of Education to grant waivers from testing this year. The signers include the Network for Public Education, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Journey for Justice Alliance, the National Superintendents Roundtable, The Schott Foundation for Public Education, and In the Public Interest.

What Ian Rosenbaum’s guidance means is, at best, unclear. Education Week‘s Andrew Ujifusa, Evie Blad, and Sarah Schwartz explain: “The Biden administration’s decision not to entertain states’ requests to cancel standardized exams for this school year due to the pandemic marks its first major K-12 decision—and it’s leading to no shortage of controversy. Although the department has now provided clarity on that highly anticipated decision, its approach to the issue—a continued mandate for testing, tempered by some flexibility—will still push states to make difficult choices… On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education informed states that it’s not inviting them to seek ‘blanket waivers or assessments’ for the 2020-2021 school year…. However, the department will consider requests to essentially put accountability systems on hold. That would mean not identifying certain schools for improvement or differentiating schools by ratings for the 2020-21 school year… States could also get waivers from the requirement that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the tests… As for the tests themselves, the Biden administration said states would have the option of giving shorter versions of the regular tests… administering tests remotely, and expanding their testing windows so that students could take the exams this summer or even during the 2021-22 school year. How states make decisions about those issues, amid the daunting array of practical challenges and political pressures, could put tremendous strain on education and political leaders.”

In a fascinating report on Friday, Valerie Strauss raised some important questions about the Department’s release of Rosenblum’s decision before Miguel Cardona, President Biden’s nominee for Education Secretary is confirmed by a full Senate vote. Earlier in February, the U.S. Senate Education Committee voted to forward Cardona’s nomination for a vote on the Senate floor.  It is rumored that Cardona may finally be confirmed today.

Was Miguel Cardona involved in the decision Ian Rosenblum announced last Monday?  If not, who did have input? Strauss reports:  “An Education Department spokesperson said Miguel Cardona, Biden’s nominee for education secretary, did not participate in the decision.”

Did Ian Rosenblum, a new appointee at the Department of Education, make the decision on his own?  Surely not. But his decision certainly does conform to the policy of his former employer. Before joining the Biden Education Department, Rosenblum was the executive director of The Education Trust, New York. The Education Trust has for decades been a strong supporter of test-based school accountability.  And the day after Rosenblum’s announcement, The Education Trust released a letter of support endorsed by four dozen organizations, many of them prominent advocates for test-and-punish school accountability. The list includes several of the Sackler-funded state 50CAN organizations including affiliates in New Jersey, New Mexico and Hawaii; the Thomas Fordham Institute; Education Reform Now, which is the “think tank” associated with the Democrats for Education Reform PAC; Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change and Foundation for Excellence in Education (ExcelinEd); The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable, and the National Association of Charter School Authorizers.

Valerie Strauss reminds readers of Biden’s remarks last December, when questioned at a large forum where teachers and many education organizations queried then candidate Biden about whether he would rethink the two-decades-long regime of high stakes testing: “He said that evaluating teachers by student test scores… was ‘a big mistake’ and that ‘teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.'”

Strauss continues: “Critics of high-stakes testing took heart in his response and hoped he would diminish the importance of the standardized tests the federal law requires states to give annually to hold schools accountable for student progress.”

Last week, after Rosenblum released the Department’s decision to require testing this year, Strauss reports that many public school educators saw Biden as reneging on his promise: “Critics reacted swiftly to the decision to require the exams, flooding social media with condemnations. They said it was not feasible to quickly shorten the exams or to administer them remotely.” Strauss quotes Richard Carranza, the chancellor of the NY City Schools who, perhaps feeling emboldened to speak his mind after announcing that, in March, he will leave his position as chancellor, said: “As an educator I would say to parents, there is an opt-out. And if there is ever at time to consider whether that opt-out makes sense for you, this is the time.”

It is expected that Miguel Cardona will be fully confirmed as U.S. Secretary of Education this week, and I presume that Cindy Martin, currently superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District and nominated to be Deputy Secretary of Education, will soon be confirmed.

I am counting on President Biden’s administration to fulfill its promises: (1) to support public schools with significant additional financial support for Title I and funding for programs under the IDEA and (2) to fulfill his promise last December to back off from high stakes testing used to blame and punish the public schools and the teachers in the nation’s school districts that serve concentrations of poor children.

Ian Rosenblum released a Departmental decision requiring high stakes standardized testing as usual, but he added several qualifications and exceptions.  Before I conclude that Biden is reneging on his promises to educators, I will be watching carefully to see what happens when Biden’s appointed leadership of the Department of Education is in place.

Joe Biden promised a new direction in education policy—grounded in support instead of punishment for school districts which have long been abandoned and underfunded by their state legislatures. These were some of his most important promises, and if he breaks them, I will be terribly disappointed.

Steve Nelson Believes America’s Obsession with School Policy Based on Standardized Tests Is All Wrong

Steve Nelson is the former Head of School at the private, progressive Calhoun School in Manhattan, but he has also spoken passionately about the danger of current trends in public school policy.  I recommend his book, First Do No Harm: Progressive Education in a Time of Existential Risk, and I also enjoy his new blog, where, last week, he warned against the problems in federally mandated standardized testing—a big issue right now as education advocates are urging the new U.S. Secretary of Education to grant states waivers to cancel federally mandated standardized testing in this COVID-19 school year.

Where did our fixation and obsession with standardized testing come from? Nelson weighs in: “Education reformers and so-called policy ‘experts’ are constantly collecting and analyzing data.  Many of these experts are, not surprisingly, economists. It’s not for nothing that economics is sometimes called ‘the dismal science.’ The hostile takeover of education by non-educators is filled with intelligent sounding phrases: ‘evidence-based,’ ‘data-driven,’ ‘metrics and accountability.’ At every level of schooling, mountains of data are collected to inform ‘best practices’ based on the alleged cause and effect implications of data-based instruction and the feedback gleaned from tests.”

Today’s accountability-based school reform is, writes Nelson, “an increasingly rigid, closed loop of assessment… systematically making schools worse: Define things children should know or be able to do at a certain age; design a curriculum to instruct them in what you’ve decided they should know; set benchmarks; develop tests to see if they have learned what you initially defined; rinse and repeat.”

Nelson calls this sort of teaching “direct instruction,” and he describes the direct but fading results: “‘Direct instruction’ does increase scores on the tests the instruction is aimed toward, even with very young children. This self-fulfilling prophecy is not surprising. But multiple studies also show that the gains in performance are fleeting—they completely wash out after 1-3 years when compared to children who have had no direction instruction.”

What kind of education does Nelson believe is consistent with normal child development?  “If we measured the right things (social development, curiosity, empathy, imagination and confidence), we would engage in a whole different set of education behaviors (play, socialization, arts programs, open-ended discovery).”

“After nearly 20 years of reading, observing, teaching and presiding over a school, I’m convinced that this simple statement—‘Measure the wrong things and you’ll get the wrong behaviors’—is the root of what ails education, from cradle to grave. Measuring the wrong thing (standardized scores of 4th graders) drives the wrong behaviors (lots of test prep and dull direct instruction). In later school years, measuring the wrong thing (SAT and other standardized test scores, grade point averages, class rank) continues to invite the wrong behaviors (gaming the system, too much unnecessary homework, suppression of curiosity, risk-aversion, high stress).

Last year, Betsy DeVos cancelled the federally mandated standardized tests in the midst of COVID-19. I think it is safe to say that Steve Nelson would tell Miguel Cardona that we can safely allow states to cancel the tests again this spring as COVID-19 continues to disrupt our schools and our children’s lives.

Big Data on Learning Loss Is Not the Point: Teachers Know How to Use Formative Assessments to Guide Their Work with Each Child

Recently on the news, I heard an education researcher discussing the importance of using standardized tests to measure something called “learning loss” across racial, ethnic, and regional groups of children during the pandemic.

Like so many others, this so-called expert made the for case for reinstating—this spring during the pandemic—the standardized testing prescribed by the federal government in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Ignoring the impossibility of collecting valid and reliable data and the impracticality of even of trying to administer the tests when some students are learning online and others attending in-person classrooms, this person pretended Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, can merely require the tests and they will happen.  She implied that the mandated tests in two subjects, basic language arts and math, will inform teaching once students come back to school even though we know that teachers do not receive scores for months and the data they receive will not contain information about the particular questions students get right or wrong. And she didn’t mention that even if a teacher did know exactly how a student marked any particular multiple choice answer, it would tell the teacher nothing about that student’s thinking.

Then this specialist who wanted to measure “learning loss” reinforced the notion that the collection of national data would enable the federal government and the states to invest in the schools where children are farthest behind. Advocates for standardized testing this spring often justify the need for testing during the pandemic as a way to drive investment in schools, as though investing in schools where children are farther behind has ever been the result of our regime of standardized testing. Anybody who has been paying attention over the past two decades since NCLB mandated annual standardized testing knows that aggregate test scores have not once—federally or at the state level—driven added funding to the schools where students’ scores are low.

The whole regime has been correctly called “test-and-punish” because NCLB prescribed sanctions for so-called failing schools and the states have adopted the same responses: add charter school choice in so called “failing” school districts; make students in so-called “failing” schools eligible for vouchers for private school tuition; close so-called “failing” schools and relocate the students; take over the so-called “failing” school districts in Detroit or Newark or Philadelphia or Chester Upland or Lorain or Youngstown or East Cleveland and put a state-appointed overseer in charge.

Title I is an important national program providing federal compensatory funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children, but if he can bring Congress along, President Biden has already promised to triple funding for this federal program which has long been underfunded despite two decades of standardized testing which have clearly identified Title I schools as places desperately in need of greater investment.  During the presidential campaign last year, Biden identified the need for more money in the same school districts where families have been devastated by COVID-19: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Seventy-four education advocacy groups and over 10,000 individuals wrote a letter to the incoming education secretary to demand that he grant states waivers to cancel the NCLB/ESSA mandated testing.  One sentence in that letter stood out for me: “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.”

I worry that many people do lack faith in schoolteachers, because I believe that most people lack any understanding of what teachers do.

In a profound article, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, Patricia Wright explains the work of teachers in words that will perhaps help the public grasp why Miguel Cardona should readily grant states waivers to skip standardized testing this spring.

Wright begins: “There has been a lot of talk lately about ‘learning loss.’ How will students catch up? What will educators do when schools are finally able to return to full in-person instruction?… Students do not need to feel like they are now susceptible to failure or that their future is in jeopardy because they may not have fully grasped certain skills and knowledge. Educators know that students need to see themselves, not just making up what they may have lost, but moving forward and accelerating their learning. Educators know how to do this work. They do it every day. Schools across the state are already collecting student data, examining and revising their curriculum and making plans to continually use assessment information throughout the next school year to inform their instruction. This will allow them to provide the necessary interventions and supports to ensure students can continue to accelerate their learning. This is the professional practice of education, something we do very well in New Jersey.”

Wrignt continues: “Schools will need to depend on formative assessment, which is assessment for learning.  It is currently used by educators to identify where students are in relation to the academic standards that are required in their current grade level… Formatively assessing students throughout the year will allow educators to bridge the learning gaps as students continue to move forward, focused simultaneously on remediation and acceleration.”

For a better understanding of formative testing, we can turn to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s Monty Neill, who defines the kind of formative testing teachers use all the time: “(T)eachers must gather information. Teachers must keep track of student learning, check up on what students have learned, and find out what’s going on with them. Keeping track means observing and documenting what students do. Checking up involves various kinds of testing and quizzing. Finding out is the heart of classroom assessment: What does the child mean? What did the child get from the experience? Why did the child do what he or she did? To find out, teachers must ask questions for which they do not already know the answers. To gather all this information, teachers can rely on a range of assessment activities. These include structured and spur-of-the-moment observations that are recorded and filed; formal and informal interviews; collections of work samples; use of extended projects, performances, and exhibitions; performance exams; and various forms of short-answer testing.”

U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s First Big Test

Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing as President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education is scheduled for this morning at 10 AM in the U.S. Senate Education Committee.  Assuming Cardona is confirmed by the committee and subsequently on the floor of the U.S. Senate, his first big test as Education Secretary will be his decision about what to do about federally mandated high-stakes student testing in this COVID-19 school year.

A groundswell of opposition to student testing continues to grow. On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported that educators across the states are asking Cardona “to give states permission not to give students federally mandated standardized tests this spring.”  Last year Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing right after schools shut down nationwide due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier last week, Strauss reported: “This is the second straight year that states are asking for waivers… This week, the U.S. Education Department sent a letter to chief state school officers saying the February 1 deadline for seeking a waiver was being extended though it didn’t set a new deadline. It promised states that it would soon provide details on submitting waiver requests….” Strauss adds that New York and Michigan have already requested waivers from standardized testing this spring.

Last Tuesday, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, convened a virtual, national town hall where experts detailed some of the many problems this spring with the logistics, the validity and the uses of the standardized testing regime mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act annually for all 3rd-8th graders and once for high school students.

Dr. Lisa Escarcega described logistical challenges and asked participants to consider who would benefit from testing this spring and who would be harmed. A member of the Colorado State Board of Education, Escarcega described the many calls from her constituents trying to figure out how to get enough computers back in school to use for test administration. She explained that school districts have regularly loaned out school computers to students who have lacked access during the pandemic to online learning being provided by their schools and added that educators were struggling with the idea of taking back—for testing purposes—the very computers which their students are using to connect with their teachers in online classes.

Other speakers, including Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-NY); Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky;  Dr. Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of the new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door; and Dr. Lorrie Shepard a professor of research and evaluation methodology at of the University of Colorado, described the special challenges during this school year.

In a recent Education Week column, Dr. Shepard summarizes many of the critiques aired in the FairTest town hall: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.”

Shepard continues: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic. Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Valerie Strauss reprinted a letter addressed to Dr. Cardona from 74 national, state and local organizations and more than 10,000 individuals demanding that, once confirmed as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona  would give states waivers, if the states submit requests, to cancel the testing in the current school year. Here is what the letter says: “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 values 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.”

Among the organizations signing the letter are the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, FairTest, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Journey for Justice Alliance, In the Public Interest, the National Superintendents Roundtable, and Defending the Early Years.

Washington Post Joins NY Times to Demand Reinstatement of Standardized Tests in Schools this Spring: It Is Still a Bad Idea

On Friday, the Washington Post editorialized to demand the reinstatement—this spring in the midst of COVID-19—of the standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeed Act. Betsy DeVos mercifully cancelled the testing mandate last spring as the pandemic hit.

On Friday, this blog critiqued a similar January 2nd, editorial from the NY Times‘ editors, who demanded that the new Education Secretary Miguel Cardona reinstate the annual annual standardized testing regime.

The reasoning of the Post‘s editorial is flawed, and the realities for teachers, families and children make the federally mandated state testing ridiculous this spring.  The Post‘s editors wonder: “How can schools create plans to make up for COVID-related learning losses if those losses haven’t been measured? Wouldn’t knowing which students have been most adversely affected be helpful in directing resources for mitigation efforts? Don’t parents have a right to know whether their sons and daughters are achieving?”

The Post would appear to trust big data and distrust educational professionals.  As soon as schools can be opened in person, professionally educated and prepared teachers and public school staff will be assessing what students need, adapting curricula accordingly, and helping parents support their children’s learning. Teachers have been doing their best throughout this school year to meet children’s and parents’ needs, although the disruption of switching back and forth from online to in-person to on-line learning as COVID-19 infections have surged and abated and surged has made the year chaotic for families and for educators.

As experts quoted on Friday in this blog point out, the state-by-state standardized tests mandated by No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act were created as a tool for school accountability; these tests have never been effective for informing classroom practice. The results are not accessible to school teachers for months after the tests are administered.  On Friday, this blog quoted Diane Ravitch explaining that these tests will not assist teachers who are trying to support children as they return to the stable, in-class instruction we anticipate as soon as vaccines are widely available and schools reopen: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test.”

Professor of research and evaluation methodology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, Lorrie Shepard warns: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic.  Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Shepard flatly rejects a primary argument of the Post‘s and the Times’ editors: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.  At the state level, there may not be new monies to allocate because of budget cuts.”

Lack of money to support reopening schools and to enhance ongoing programming and even prevent staffing reductions as the COVID-19 recession deepens has been a worry all year among education professionals.  Without COVID relief for state and local governments, it is feared states will be forced to cut their education budgets in the next couple of years—state budgets which cover over 45 percent of all school funding on average.

President Elect Biden is already well aware of alarming educational inequity. Biden has pledged immediately to support another COVID-19 relief bill that would, with the new Democratic Senate majority, presumably include assistance for state and local governments. Biden has also pledged to invest federal dollars through tripling Title I and other investments for equity.  Biden campaigned on on a promise to increase investment in the public schools in communities where poverty is concentrated:  “Invest in our schools to eliminate the funding gap between white and non-white districts, and rich and poor districts. There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.”

Injustice in American public education has been defined for generations by what Jonathan Kozol in 1991 described as Savage Inequalities in investment between wealthy and poor school districts.  Programs like the federal Title I program for compensatory funding for schools serving concentrations of poor children as well the states’ school funding distribution formulas are intended, despite their inadequacy, to invest federal and state dollars in the school districts lacking local property taxing capacity.  Inequities will persist until our society finds a way, in the poorest school districts, to invest in pre-Kindergarten and wraparound Community Schools; small classes; plenty of counselors, nurses and librarians; and the kind of curricular enrichment children in wealthy exurbs take for granted.

This COVID-19 year is an excellent time for the federal government to invest in educational equity and to incentivize states to increase their investments in the poorest school districts. It is a bad time to relaunch the failed high-stakes testing regime of No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act.

New Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona, Should Not Require Annual Standardized Testing in This COVID-19 School Year

Last weekend, the NY Times editorialized to demand that President Elect Joe Biden’s new Secretary of Education promptly “clear the wreckage” from Betsy DeVos’s Department of Education. The newspaper is correct to criticize Betsy DeVos’s abandonment of the department’s mission of protecting the civil rights of America’s public school students. And the editorial writers deserve praise for condemning DeVos’s dogged support for for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of indebted student borrowers.

But pretty quickly the Times editorial board steps into the old trap of endorsing federally mandated high stakes standardized testing and the collection of big data at the expense of the children and teachers who are struggling to make it through this school year being shunted back and forth from on-line schooling to in-person school and then back on-line as the COVID-19 numbers rise and fall. The editorial board has slipped into the No Child Left Behind mindset that values data over the lived experience of students and teachers:

“Mr. Cardona would need to pay close attention to how districts plan to deal with learning loss that many children will suffer while the schools are closed. Fall testing data analyzed by the nonprofit research organization NWEA suggests that setbacks have been less severe than were feared with students showing continued academic progress in reading and only modest setbacks in math. However, given a shortage of testing data for Black, Hispanic and poor children, it could well be that these groups have fared worse in the pandemic than their white or more affluent peers. The country needs specific information on how these subgroups are doing so that it can allocate educational resources strategically.”

That is, of course, what No Child Left Behind and its massive state-by-state testing regime was supposed to be about, except that nobody ever “allocated educational resources strategically” once we had all the big data. President Elect Joe Biden has explained that across the United States: “There’s an estimated $23 billion annual funding gap between white and non-white school districts today, and gaps persist between high- and low-income districts as well.” Despite wide agreement that twenty years of data-driven school accountability failed to drive investment into the poorest schools, the narrative has been deeply embedded into the conventional wisdom.

It will be up to our new Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to decide whether to cancel this spring’s federally mandated standardized tests in language arts and math for a second year. Betsy DeVos, to her credit, let the states and the nation’s public schools off the hook last year due to the chaos of the pandemic.

Last week the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss summarized the past two decades of mandated standardized testing and the choice which now faces Education Secretary Cardona: “The annual spring testing regime—complete with sometimes extensive test preparation in class and even testing ‘pep rallies’—has become a flash point in the two-decade-old school reform movement that has centered on using standardized tests to hold schools and teachers accountable.  First, under the 2002 No Child Left Behind law and now under its successor, the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, public schools are required to give most students tests each year in math and English language arts and to use the results in accountability formulas.  Districts evaluate teachers and states evaluate schools and districts—at least in part—on test scores.”

Strauss continues: “Supporters say that (the tests) are important to determine whether students are making progress and that two straight years of having no data from these tests would stunt student academic progress because teachers would not have critical information on how well their students are doing. Critics say that the results have no value to teachers because the scores come after the school year has ended and that they are not allowed to see test questions or know which ones their students get wrong. There are also concerns that some tests used for accountability purposes are not well-aligned to what students learn in school—and that the results only show what is already known: students from poor families do worse than students from families with more resources.”

Criticizing the NY Times editorial, Diane Ravitch elaborates as she suggests that Dr. Cardona should cancel the mandated state tests for a second year: “The results will be useless. The teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions, never allowed to discuss them, and never allowed to learn how individual students performed on specific questions. The results will be reported 4-6 months after students take the test. The students will have a new teacher. The students will get a score, but no one will get any information about what students do or don’t know… Anyone who thinks that it is necessary or fair to give standardized tests this spring is out of touch with the realities of schooling. More important than test scores right now is the health and safety of students, teachers, and staff.”

Writing for Education Week last month, Lorrie A. Shepard, a professor of research and evaluation methodology  at the University of Colorado School of Education cautions that, Testing Students This Spring Would Be a Mistake. Like many experts, Shepard worries about the use of standardized tests for high stakes accountability: “Even under normal circumstances, high-stakes testing has negative consequences. State assessment programs co-opt valuable instructional time, both for week-long test administration and for test preparation. Accountability pressures often distort curriculum, emphasizing test-like worksheets and focusing only on tested subjects. Recent studies of data-driven decision making warn us that test-score interpretations can lead to deficit narratives—blaming children and their families—instead of prompting instructional improvements… Most significantly, teachers report that they and their students experience high degrees of anxiety, even shame, when test scores are publicly reported… Clearly it would be unfair to hold schools and teachers accountable for outcomes when students’ learning opportunities have varied because of computer and internet access, home learning circumstances, and absences related to sickness or family disruption. Testing this year is counterproductive because it potentially demoralizes students and teachers without addressing the grave problems exacerbated by the pandemic.”

In The Testing Charade: Pretending to Make Schools Better, a profound and thorough exploration of the past two decades of the use of students’ standardized test scores to evaluate their schools and their teachers, Harvard University testing expert, Daniel Koretz concisely explains why the federal use of widespread standardized testing to drive teachers’ evaluations, school closures, the firing of school principals, state takeovers of schools, and the turnover of public schools to private operators has not only left us with a succession of dangerous policies, but also undermined the validity of the tests themselves as states manipulated their scoring to avoid sanctions.  Further the attachment of high stakes undermined the education process in the schools where children were farthest behind—schools where teachers were forced to teach to the test or fall back on deadly drilling.

Koretz cites social scientist Don Campbell’s well-known theory describing the universal human response when high stakes are attached to any quantitative social indicator: “The more any quantitative social indicator is is used for social decision making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor… Achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of… achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways.” (The Testing Charade, pp. 38-39)