Cardona’s Flexibility on Standardized Testing Creates Confusion and Rancor

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. NewsLauren 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)

Does Education Secretary Cardona Recognize the Two Huge Problems with High-Stakes Testing?

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona insists that federally mandated standardized testing will go on as usual in this COVID-19 dominated year. While his decision feels particularly impractical, intrusive, complicated and disruptive in the midst of COVID-19, the decision is of much deeper concern for two reasons.

This blog will take the holiday weekend off. Look for a new post on Wednesday, April 7.

One would like to think that Dr. Cardona is familiar with the huge debate that has consumed education experts and also many parents who have been opting out for years now.  But when Dr. Cardona explained why testing must go on as usual, he didn’t even bother to offer a rationale that addresses any of the reasons experts have insisted he should cancel the tests once again this year. Instead he said we need the tests so that the Department of Education can ensure that federal investment goes to the school districts that need it most. That is such a lovely thought, and if tests were designed and used to gauge needed investment in the poorest communities, it would be wonderful. 

But standardized tests, as mandated by No Child Left Behind and its successor, the Every Student Succeeds Act, were not designed to drive a system of test-and-invest. They are instead the very foundation of a maze of policies at the federal level—and now federally mandated across the states—to identify so-called “failing schools” and to punish them.

The first kind of damage caused by high-stakes testing is pedagogical. Standardized testing and its preparation have deeply affected what happens in the classroom itself. Dr. Cardona’s decision to insist on tests in this schoolyear will undermine what students need most when school resumes in some sort of post pandemic normal.

At his Rethinking Learning blog, Rich tenEyck explains: “For more than 20 years now, we have been told that a major component of the ‘standards movement’ was the creation and use of large-scale assessments required by federal funding programs. These were sold as a critical source of information about how much our kids are learning… These annual tests are far more reliable predictors of family wealth than as tools for helping teachers better respond to student needs. Educators have known this and have frequently tried to alert us to the misunderstanding and the misuse of these tests. What has happened as a result?  These teachers and school leaders have been vilified… But what if the tests required by various pieces of federal legislation never really tested learning at all? What if they tested the recall of many isolated and disconnected facts?… What if the tests provide almost no insight into the real learning needs of kids?”

Educator and blogger Steve Nelson diagnoses the special problem with standardized tests this spring when some students are online, others in hybrid settings, some disconnected: “In keeping with the illogical, inhumane, and ineffectual practices of the recent past, the testing industry will look for all the deficits it can find, so as to identify the mythical ‘learning losses,’ so that the least privileged can be remediated using materials produced by the testing industry, thereby further depriving them of the experiences they need most… Renowned cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner and many others have determined that social context is the most important variable in real learning. Relationships among and between teachers and students determine the quality of school experience. Now more than ever kids need to be back in the good company of their friends and their teachers.”

And Alfie Kohn reminds us: “John Dewey described how a curriculum that’s based on students’ questions and connects with their experiences has ‘an inherent attracting power.’” Kohn continues: “The whole standards-and-testing edifice of our education system consists of expectations and outcomes that have been devised by distant authorities, imposed on students (and teachers!), and enforced by exams to ensure ‘accountability.’ These standards are often breathtakingly granular in their specificity because the whole approach is rooted in an outdated behaviorist model of learning.”

Standards and test-based accountability have moved us far away from the progressive philosophy of education advocated by Kohn, Nelson, and tenEyck. But there is also a second problem is that is structural and systemic: Standardized testing has damaged the very foundation of our entire system of public education. Ohio’s Bill Phillis captured the extent of the problem in his daily comment on Tuesday: “The No Child Left Behind Act has put the nation at risk… After four decades of reform by politicians, teachers are demoralized. Poor school districts are still poor with test scores lower than rich districts. Billions have been largely wasted on charters and vouchers. The voucher and charter advocates have developed powerful lobbies and billionaire partners. The future of the time-honored common school system is in jeopardy.”

Today states are required by the Every Student Succeeds Act to identify the bottom performing schools according to their standardized test scores and to submit to the U.S. Department of Education a plan to turnaround these schools. This system attaches high stakes to the standardized test scores as a tool to blame and punish educators and make them work harder. The punishments it imposes are severe.

  • Many states create and publish school and school district report cards which rate and rank schools and school districts.  
  • Some states take over so-called failing schools and school districts and impose state appointed overseers and academic distress commissions to manage low scoring schools and school districts.
  • Other states, or sometimes the administrators of school districts, shut down low scoring schools and, ironically, call the shutdowns a turnaround strategy.
  • States use test scores to hold children back in third grade if their reading scores are too low.
  • Many states deny students who have passed all of their high school classes a diploma when they don’t score proficient on the state’s graduation test.
  • Even though statisticians have shown that students’ test scores are not valid as a tool for evaluating teachers, and even though the federal government has ceased demanding that states use test scores for teachers’ evaluations, a number of states continue this policy.
  • School districts with F grades are the places where many states permit the location of charter schools or where students qualify for private school tuition vouchers—sometimes with dollars taken right out of the school district’s budget.
  • Because test scores tend to correlate closely with a community’s aggregate family income, the federal high-stakes standardized testing regime brands the schools in the poorest communities as “failing schools.”
  • The branding of poor school districts causes educational redlining and middle class flight.

A lot of people are watching Education Secretary Miguel Cardona carefully to gauge whether he grasps the depth of the problems with high stakes testing, first, pedagogically within our nation’s classrooms, and second, through the test-based system itself that punishes instead of assisting the schools that need the most help.

Diane Ravitch summarizes why people are so concerned that Secretary Cardona has not acknowledged the damage of the high-states testing regime: “These tests have high stakes for students (who might fail to be promoted), teachers (who might be fired if their students’ test scores don’t rise), and schools (which might be closed if test scores don’t go up)… The challenge for Miguel Cardona, Biden’s Secretary of Education, will be to abandon two decades of high-stakes testing and accountability and to remove any federal incentives to create privately managed charter schools.”

Education Secretary Miguel Cardona Begins to Rectify Injustice in Department’s College Loan Program

Last Thursday, March 18, 2021, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona rescinded a policy devised by his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, for processing complaints by students who claimed to have been defrauded by unscrupulous for-profit colleges and trade schools. DeVos’s policy denied debt relief for thousands of students whose complaints were not carefully or fairly considered.

The U.S. Department of Education manages an enormous higher education loan program which has been criticized by borrowers and members of Congress alike—all concerned that under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, student borrowers were left unprotected after for-profit colleges and trade schools induced them to take out big loans for shoddy education programs. Because these institutions are highly dependent on federal student loans to cover their operating expenses, they too frequently prey on students and military veterans with fraudulent advertising about the nature and quality of the programs to which they lure students. A federal rule called “the borrower defense to repayment” is supposed to protect students by cancelling their student loans when the students can prove the schools’ promises were fraudulent.

The Washington Post‘s Danielle Douglas-Gabriel explains the significance of Cardona’s action last week: “About 72,000 people will have their federal loans canceled after Education Secretary Miguel Cardona… scrapped a plan to give partial debt relief to students defrauded by their colleges, ending a controversial policy instituted by his predecessor Betsy DeVos. The move… amounts to roughly $1 billion in debt relief.  But it only addresses a subset of the nearly 200,000 people who have filed claims in the last six years under… ‘borrower defense to repayment.'”

Inside Higher Education‘s Lilah Burke reviews DeVos’s widely criticized scheme for calculating how students’ debt could be erased once adjudicators determined they had been defrauded: “(I)f a borrower’s claim that they were cheated was accepted, the Education Department determined loan relief based on a formula. If a borrower’s earnings after graduation were two standard deviations below the median for similar programs, the department granted the borrower full relief. If the borrower’s earnings were below the median, but not by two standard deviations, the department granted 25, 50, or 75 percent relief.  Under the Obama administration, the department recommended full relief for borrowers that attended the (now closed) for-profit chains Corinthian College and ITT Technical Institute. DeVos said the policies were too generous with taxpayer money and debuted the formula in December 2019.”

Now under Secretary Cardona’s leadership, Douglas-Gabriel reports: “(T)he department will revive the Obama-era policy.  Borrowers whose claims have been approved, including those who previously received partial loan relief, will have a path to a full loan discharge. The department will reimburse any amounts paid on the loans, request credit bureaus to remove negative reporting tied to the debt and reinstate federal aid eligibility…. Eligible borrowers will be notified in the coming weeks.”

Douglas-Gabriel adds that there remain limitations and that Cardona’s department will need to go through a formal process to correct DeVos’s version of ‘borrower defense to repayment’: “The new policy only applies to claims that have been approved to date, not any that are still under review or those that have been rejected. A senior department official told reporters Thursday the agency is reviewing the best approach for those claims going forward. The Biden administration said it will also pursue an overhaul of the prior administration’s rewrite of the borrower defense rules, a process that will require new rulemaking.”

There have been complaints for years about DeVos’s overhaul of the Department of Education’s processing of complaints from indebted students who claim they were defrauded by false advertising. It has also been well known that after she took over the department, a huge backlog of complaints piled up as she balked at processing them. In a New York Times report last week, Stacy Cowley reports on recently uncovered evidence demonstrating that when Betsy DeVos was pressured to begin processing complaints, some of which dated back to the Obama administration, she set up a process that violated the rights of the indebted students:

“The documents were obtained under court order by lawyers in the class-action case, which involves more than 200,000 people who brought claims under a relief program known as borrower defense to repayment… (T)he lawsuit, filed in 2019 in federal court in San Francisco, sought to compel the department to review claims that had languished for as long as four years. In a settlement agreement struck last year, the department agreed to speed things up and make decisions.”

Cowley continues: “Nearly 95 percent of the borrowers in the case whose claims were decided were rejected, according to court filings.” “In Ms. DeVos’s final year in office, her agency denied nearly 130,000 claims—far surpassing the 9,000 rejections in the prior five years—with a system that pressured workers to speed through applications in a matter of minutes…. The department aimed to process 5,000 applications a week.. a standard that required agency employees to adjudicate claims that could stretch to hundreds of pages in less than 12 minutes. Those who did it faster were eligible for bonuses; those who took longer risked being fired. Agency employees rejected claims… for not including written evidence that borrowers were never required to submit.” “After the borrowers’ lawyers complained, Judge William Alsup rejected the settlement in October.  His ruling strongly criticized the department for ‘issuing perfunctory denial notices utterly devoid of meaningful explanation at a blistering pace.'”

Betsy DeVos is no longer operating a college loan program for the benefit of for-profit colleges and trade schools at the expense of the rights of their students who have, for years in many cases, been awaiting consideration of their particular cases.  It is a good thing that Miguel Cardona, the new Secretary of Education, has begun to correct longstanding injustice in the Department’s adjudication of student loan complaints.

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.

Big Data on Learning Loss Is Not the Point: Teachers Know How to Use Formative Assessments to Guide Their Work with Each Child

Recently on the news, I heard an education researcher discussing the importance of using standardized tests to measure something called “learning loss” across racial, ethnic, and regional groups of children during the pandemic.

Like so many others, this so-called expert made the for case for reinstating—this spring during the pandemic—the standardized testing prescribed by the federal government in No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). Ignoring the impossibility of collecting valid and reliable data and the impracticality of even of trying to administer the tests when some students are learning online and others attending in-person classrooms, this person pretended Miguel Cardona, the new education secretary, can merely require the tests and they will happen.  She implied that the mandated tests in two subjects, basic language arts and math, will inform teaching once students come back to school even though we know that teachers do not receive scores for months and the data they receive will not contain information about the particular questions students get right or wrong. And she didn’t mention that even if a teacher did know exactly how a student marked any particular multiple choice answer, it would tell the teacher nothing about that student’s thinking.

Then this specialist who wanted to measure “learning loss” reinforced the notion that the collection of national data would enable the federal government and the states to invest in the schools where children are farthest behind. Advocates for standardized testing this spring often justify the need for testing during the pandemic as a way to drive investment in schools, as though investing in schools where children are farther behind has ever been the result of our regime of standardized testing. Anybody who has been paying attention over the past two decades since NCLB mandated annual standardized testing knows that aggregate test scores have not once—federally or at the state level—driven added funding to the schools where students’ scores are low.

The whole regime has been correctly called “test-and-punish” because NCLB prescribed sanctions for so-called failing schools and the states have adopted the same responses: add charter school choice in so called “failing” school districts; make students in so-called “failing” schools eligible for vouchers for private school tuition; close so-called “failing” schools and relocate the students; take over the so-called “failing” school districts in Detroit or Newark or Philadelphia or Chester Upland or Lorain or Youngstown or East Cleveland and put a state-appointed overseer in charge.

Title I is an important national program providing federal compensatory funding for school districts serving concentrations of poor children, but if he can bring Congress along, President Biden has already promised to triple funding for this federal program which has long been underfunded despite two decades of standardized testing which have clearly identified Title I schools as places desperately in need of greater investment.  During the presidential campaign last year, Biden identified the need for more money in the same school districts where families have been devastated by COVID-19: “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.”

Seventy-four education advocacy groups and over 10,000 individuals wrote a letter to the incoming education secretary to demand that he grant states waivers to cancel the NCLB/ESSA mandated testing.  One sentence in that letter stood out for me: “To believe that it is impossible for teachers to identify and address learning gaps without a standardized test is to have a breathtaking lack of faith in our nation’s teachers.”

I worry that many people do lack faith in schoolteachers, because I believe that most people lack any understanding of what teachers do.

In a profound article, the executive director of the New Jersey Principals and Supervisors Association, Patricia Wright explains the work of teachers in words that will perhaps help the public grasp why Miguel Cardona should readily grant states waivers to skip standardized testing this spring.

Wright begins: “There has been a lot of talk lately about ‘learning loss.’ How will students catch up? What will educators do when schools are finally able to return to full in-person instruction?… Students do not need to feel like they are now susceptible to failure or that their future is in jeopardy because they may not have fully grasped certain skills and knowledge. Educators know that students need to see themselves, not just making up what they may have lost, but moving forward and accelerating their learning. Educators know how to do this work. They do it every day. Schools across the state are already collecting student data, examining and revising their curriculum and making plans to continually use assessment information throughout the next school year to inform their instruction. This will allow them to provide the necessary interventions and supports to ensure students can continue to accelerate their learning. This is the professional practice of education, something we do very well in New Jersey.”

Wrignt continues: “Schools will need to depend on formative assessment, which is assessment for learning.  It is currently used by educators to identify where students are in relation to the academic standards that are required in their current grade level… Formatively assessing students throughout the year will allow educators to bridge the learning gaps as students continue to move forward, focused simultaneously on remediation and acceleration.”

For a better understanding of formative testing, we can turn to The National Center for Fair and Open Testing’s Monty Neill, who defines the kind of formative testing teachers use all the time: “(T)eachers must gather information. Teachers must keep track of student learning, check up on what students have learned, and find out what’s going on with them. Keeping track means observing and documenting what students do. Checking up involves various kinds of testing and quizzing. Finding out is the heart of classroom assessment: What does the child mean? What did the child get from the experience? Why did the child do what he or she did? To find out, teachers must ask questions for which they do not already know the answers. To gather all this information, teachers can rely on a range of assessment activities. These include structured and spur-of-the-moment observations that are recorded and filed; formal and informal interviews; collections of work samples; use of extended projects, performances, and exhibitions; performance exams; and various forms of short-answer testing.”