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.

Ohio’s Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow Has Its Day in Court; Chief Justice Calls ECOT’s Claim Absurd

After a lengthy legal case in which Ohio’s biggest charter school, the Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow (ECOT) has challenged the Ohio Department of Education’s attempt to crack down on what appears to be ECOT’s outrageous over-reporting of student attendance, ECOT had its final day in court. The Ohio Supreme Court heard ECOT’s appeal yesterday morning.

For about an hour the attorneys for ECOT and for the Ohio Department of Education presented their arguments, and the justices peppered them with questions.  ECOT’s attorney, Marion Little argued that Ohio law requires only that online e-schools document students’ formal enrollment and provide 920 hours of curriculum annually. Whether or not students actually participate in the school’s online education is, according to Little, not covered by Ohio law as a condition for the state’s per pupil funding of the school. Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor expressed skepticism.

Here is the Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell on the argument made by the attorney for the Ohio Department of Education: “Department lawyer Douglas Cole repeatedly blasted ECOT’s position that it should be paid for every student enrolled at the school, regardless of how long they spend working on their online classes. ‘The department says that’s an absurd result and the court should be leery about reading that intent (into the law),’ Cole said.”

The Columbus Dispatch‘s Jim Siegel describes the final interchange between ECOT’s attorney and Chief Justice O’Connor:  “As ECOT attorney Marion Little finished his arguments for why, under the law, the online school should get full funding for students even if they only log in once a month and do no work, Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor interjected. ‘How is that not absurd?’ she asked.”

Verification of e-school attendance has become a serious issue in Ohio, particularly for ECOT—Ohio’s largest charter school, which has been collecting tens of millions of tax dollars every year in per-pupil reimbursements. The Plain Dealer‘s Patrick O’Donnell explained in a background piece in Sunday’s Plain Dealer: “ECOT is the biggest charter school in Ohio—bigger than all but 13 school districts in the state—and was once the largest online school in the nation. ECOT received more than $100 million in state tax dollars each year until the recent funding dispute, while drawing students and funding from 95 percent of the school districts in Ohio.  Those include more than 800 from Cleveland, more than 200 from Akron and about 120 from districts like Parma and Elyria.”

In the 2015-16 school year when the state instituted a requirement for more rigorous documentation that students were actually participating in the school’s electronic program, there was a gaping disparity between the number of students ECOT claimed were enrolled and the number of students whose active participation the state could verify.  The Columbus Dispatch‘s Siegel reminds us that, “The department found ECOT was unable to verify about 60 percent of its enrollment for the 2015-16 school year, and more than 18 percent of its enrollment for the 2016-17 year.”

Here are the exact numbers, according to the Plain Dealer’s O’Donnell: “Under the new requirements, ECOT could document class participation of only 6,300 of its 15,300 students for the 2015-16 school year—a 59% gap—leading the state school board to demand that ECOT repay $60 million.  Then again last September, the state found that for the 2016-17 school year, ECOT can properly document about 11,700 of the 14,200 students it claims.”  Based on the disparity in enrollment figures, the state school board last week voted to recover $19.2 million for the 2016-17 school year. For these two school years the state is now trying to recover a total of $80 million.

The Ohio Supreme Court’s decision on ECOT’s appeal is vitally important to ECOT’s founder William Lager and supporters of the school.  The Dispatch‘s  Siegel reminds us: “Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow’s attorneys were literally fighting for the school’s life in front of the Ohio Supreme Court… The state’s largest charter school shut its doors three weeks ago when its sponsor, the Educational Service Center of Lake Erie West, suspended operations because the school was set to run out of money in March… It appears the only way those doors reopen next year is through a favorable Ohio Supreme Court ruling that says the department illegally imposed a retroactive rule change that led to the ECOT owing the state about $80 million for unverified enrollment… The Department of Education in 2016 beefed up its oversight and started requiring online schools to show through log-in durations and offline documentation that students were actually participating in minimum hours of ‘educational opportunities.'”

In an article written on Monday, prior to ECOT’s hearing at the Ohio Supreme Court, the Dispatch‘s Catherine Candisky and Jim Siegel described the history of the case: “(T)he two-year fight between ECOT and the Department of Education has been unusually ugly.  Using television ads (which the state auditor is investigating for possible illegal use of state funds) and media spokesman Neil Clark, a grizzled Statehouse lobbyist, ECOT harshly attacked the department, its leadership, and more recently through an affiliated blog, Gov. John Kasich… Clark accused the department of ‘trying to eliminate school choice in Ohio through illegal actions,’ and he also has accused the courts of playing politics. Publicly, the Department of Education did not swing back much until a few weeks ago, when, in the wake of ECOT’s closure, a spokeswoman said, ‘The department has no confidence that ECOT intends to follow the law… We’re disappointed that ECOT and its for-profit vendors, IQ Innovations and Altair Learning Management, continue to prioritize their monetary gain over the best interests of 12,000 students.’ Since 2000, these companies, run by ECOT founder Bill Lager, have collected about $200 million in state funding.”

A huge issue prior to yesterday’s Supreme Court hearing was whether justices on the Ohio Supreme Court with a potential conflict of interest in the case ought to recuse themselves.  Ohio’s justices are elected and, therefore, depend on political contributions. Justice Terrence O’Donnell, for example, has been closely tied to ECOT and William Lager, ECOT’s founder and the owner of the two for-profit companies that provide ECOT’s curriculum and management. Here is the Plain Dealer‘s editorial, published yesterday to coincide with the Supreme Court’s hearing on the ECOT case: “In 2012, the last time O’Donnell ran for re-election, his campaign received $3,450 from Lager, as well as another $4,450 from employees of Lager’s Altair Management. O’Donnell then agreed after receiving a personal call from Lager, to speak at the 2013 ECOT graduation.”

When the Plain Dealer‘s O’Donnell described the Court proceedings yesterday morning, he confirmed that Justice Terrence O’Donnell’s questioning helped ECOT’s attorney Marion Little by leading Little to lay out ECOT’s justification for its theory of counting student attendance: “Justice Terrence O’Donnell had a different approach in his questions for Little and Cole. One sequence of questions allowed Little to affirm key points of the school’s argument that charter schools were always paid on the number of  students (who enroll without considering their participation) until the state changed its method in 2016.”

I encourage you to watch the archived footage of the February 13, Ohio Supreme Court hearing on ECOT’s case. Having watched the hearing myself, I’ll guess that the decision of the Ohio Supreme Court will fall on the side of Chief Justice Maureen O’Connor’s point that ECOT’s argument is absurd. I am assuming the court majority will decide not to to protect William Lager and his outrageous profits based on charging Ohio’s taxpayers tens of millions of dollars for students who have not really been actively engaging with ECOT’s curriculum despite that the students may have formally enrolled and received a laptop computer.