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)