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)

What Do We Know about Our Next Education Secretary, Dr. Miguel Cardona?,

Today Congress will meet to certify the electoral college vote and confirm Joe Biden as our next president. Biden’s election guarantees Betsy DeVos’s exit as Secretary of Education.

It looks as though, by nominating Dr. Miguel Cardona, currently Connecticut’s state Commissioner of Education, President-Elect Biden has fulfilled the prediction of satirist Andy Borowitz (in his funniest Borowitz Report for the year): “Betsy DeVos warns that Biden will pick Education Secretary with background in education… ‘In order to be impartial toward education, an Education Secretary must be as ignorant as possible,’ she said. ‘I don’t mean to boast, but I am going to be a tough act to follow in that respect.'”

Dr. Cardona is definitely someone with a strong background in public education. He has devoted his career to serving public schools. In his acceptance remarks, Cardona describes his life work: “I was blessed to attend public schools in my hometown of Meriden, Connecticut, where I was able to expand my horizons, become the first in my family to graduate college, and become a teacher, principal, and assistant superintendent in the same community that gave me so much. That is the power of America—in two generations. And I, being bilingual and bicultural, am as American as apple pie and rice and beans.”

For Inside Higher Education, Kery Murakami describes Cardona’s credentials: “Cardona’s background is primarily in elementary and secondary education. In 2003, Cardona, then 28, was the youngest principal in the state when he became head of Hanover Elementary School in Meriden, Conn… After becoming an assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Meriden Public Schools in 2013, he rose quickly in the state system, becoming head of the state’s K-12 schools just last summer. As a student, he attended Meriden Public Schools and graduated from Wilcox Technical High School.  Cardona attended Central Connecticut State University for his bachelor’s degree and the University of Connecticut, where he completed his master’s degree in bilingual/bicultural education and his doctorate in education.”

The Washington Post‘s education reporters explore Cardona’s recent work as Connecticut’s top education leader: “In Connecticut’s top job, much of Cardona’s attention has been focused on the coronavirus pandemic.  After schools closed, he worked to procure devices for students who need them to participate in remote schooling and pushed to reopen buildings… That record dovetails with Biden’s focus on trying to get schools reopened.  He has called on districts to resume in-person teaching within his first 100 days in office. The new education secretary’s first task will be to help guide schools through the final phase of the pandemic. Cardona has also focused his attention on education issues and voiced concern that the pandemic was exacerbating inequities among students. Under his tenure, Connecticut became the first state to require high schools to offer courses on Black and Latino studies. Earlier, he served as co-chairman of a state task force examining achievement gaps.”

Despite Cardona’s strengths as a public school educator and as a person who understands the challenges for teachers and school leaders from inside the operation of schools, people who know federal policy in education share some concern about his lack of experience in the policy wars that have swirled around education since the 2002 passage of No Child Left Behind, when standardized, test-based school accountability imposed punishments on schools unable quickly to raise standardized test scores. Business accountability based on incentives and sanctions was the operating mechanism of No Child Left Behind and later of Arne Duncan’s Race to the Top, with punishments for so-called “failing” schools ranging from firing the principal and part of the teaching staff, charterizing the school, or closing the school altogether. Duncan punished teachers as well; they were to be evaluated according to their students’ standardized test scores under a plan that was eventually slammed by the American Educational Research Association and the American Statistical Association as invalid and unreliable.

Contrary to the No Child Left Behind/Race to the Top strategy, decades of educational research demonstrate that lagging standardized test scores reflect widespread opportunity gaps in children’s lives—in school and outside school—and are a flawed measuring stick for the quality of a public school.  This research predicts that schools in America’s poorest communities are likely to post the lowest aggregate test scores, with schools in wealthy suburban pockets of privilege likely to post the highest scores.

All the evidence points to the need for federal help to alleviate childhood poverty and investment in the public schools in poor communities—precisely the kind of policies Candidate Joe Biden prescribed in his Education Plan: triple Title I funding; fully fund the IDEA in ten years; increase the number of full service, wraparound Community Schools; expand access to enriched pre-Kindergarten; and incentivize states to more adequately and equitably fund their public schools. The question is whether Dr. Cardona will fully implement the very positive pro-public education policy agenda that President-Elect Joe Biden has proclaimed.

Education policy is at a crossroads where policy makers must choose one road or the other: toward punitive policy involving high stakes testing and increased privatization or toward significant assistance for the public schools serving concentrations of students living in urban or rural poverty.  For two decades Democrats have tried to join with Republicans to locate a third way—a middle path that seems to accommodate both sides.  It hasn’t worked: test scores themselves haven’t budged, and achievement gaps have not narrowed. Biden has now pledged to turn away from test-and-punish and help the public schools most in need of federal investment.  But people worry that Cardona may lack experience in the fraught context of federal policy. Can he avoid being lured down the wrong road or into a supposed shortcut? Will he have enough experience not to get trapped in the thickets of the policy landscape.  Will he be able to see far enough ahead to realize he may be taking a road that winds right back to the old test-and-punish starting point?

Will Cardona Compromise On High-Stakes Standardized Testing?

In the two decades under No Child Left Behind and the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have been required to administer standardized tests to students every year in grades 3-8 and once in high school, to aggregate the scores, and then to use the tests as the basis for rewards or sanctions. The high-stakes punishments for so-called “failing” schools  have included the use of aggregate students’ test scores to judge and rate and rank the school or school district, to “turnaround” the school through charterization or school closure, to fire staff or impose punishments if scores don’t rise quickly, and to impose state takeover with appointed overseer accountability boards.

During the presidential campaign, Biden distanced himself from standardized testing and rejected the high stakes as well. Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains that, “Biden was skeptical of standardized tests on the campaign trail.  Working in cooperation with his campaign, the Democratic Party included language critical of ‘high stakes’ use of test scores in its 2020 platform.  Some education policy wonks who supported President Barack Obama’s approach to school accountability said Biden put too much emphasis on school funding and not enough on accountability.”  Blad examines Cardona’s record: “In general Cardona hasn’t been a strident critic of standardized testing like some of Biden’s other reported candidates for education secretary, but has emphasized the appropriate use of test scores.  Serving on a state advisory panel that assisted in the design of teacher-evaluation policies as a district administrator, he stressed the importance of multiple measures of success.”

Diane Ravitch writes: “Dr. Cardona has not taken a position on the major issues that define the… education policy battles of the past two decades.  He has been critical of excessive testing but does not oppose the use of standardized testing on principle.  He has been critical of test-based evaluation of teachers (using students’ scores to rate their teachers)—a major element of Race to the Top—because he knows that it doesn’t work.”

Will Cardona Compromise On Charter Schools?

Education Week‘s Evie Blad explains: “Cardona hasn’t taken a strong position for or against charter schools.  His state education department has renewed charter school plans, but it has not approved any new ones since he was appointed in August 2019…”  Blad quotes Cardona: “Charter schools provide choice for parents that are seeking choice, so I think it’s a viable option, but neighborhood schools that’s going to be the core work that not only myself but the people behind me in the (Connecticut) agency that I represent will have while I’m commissioner.”

Shawgi Tell, a Rochester NY professor of education who blogs at Dissident Voice, quotes Nina Rees, CEO of he National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, who seems to hope that Cardona will not abandon charter schools: “We call upon him to place students and families first and to be agnostic about Pre K-12 instructional delivery and governance models… The Secretary must be committed to supporting the entire public school ecosystem….”

Tell also quotes Andy Rotherham, founder and partner at Bellwether Education Partners, which identifies itself as “supporting innovation” in education. Rotherham describes Cardona as, “a Goldilocks on charter schools—not too hot or cold. He didn’t champion opening new ones, but has renewed existing ones while he was commissioner. Charter leaders have nice things to say about him even as he states that his focus is district-run schools.”

Diane Ravitch comments: “He is neither for nor against charter schools, even though Connecticut experienced some of the worst charter scandals in the nation (think the Jumoke charter chain), is the home base of the Sackler-funded ConnCAN (which morphed into 50CAN, to spread the privatization movement nationally), and is the home base of Achievement First, one of the premier no-excuses charter chains, known in the past for harsh discipline (three in the AF chain are currently on probation, despite their high test sores). The fact that three of the politically powerful AF no-excuses charters are on probation is a hopeful sign that he intends to hold charters to the same standards as public schools.”

We’ll Have to Watch and Evaluate.

The Network for Public Education comments on President-Elect Biden’s nomination of Dr. Cardona for Education Secretary: “Dr. Cardona is the product of neighborhood public schools. He sends his children to public schools. His life’s work has been immersed in public schools. He did not attend the Broad Academy nor become a Jeb Bush Chief for Change. He has never claimed that three great teachers in a row will cure poverty, nor has he ever said that charter schools are the answer.”

Diane Ravitch adds: “I am still hoping for a Secretary who recognizes that the past twenty years have been a nightmare for American public schools, their students, and their teachers. I am still hoping for someone who will publicly admit that federal education policy has been a disaster since No Child Left Behind and its kissing cousin Race to the Top, modified slightly by the Every Student Succeeds Act.  Maybe Dr. Cardona will be that person.  We will see.”