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. News‘ Lauren 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)