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.