U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona’s First Big Test

Miguel Cardona’s confirmation hearing as President Biden’s nominee for U.S. Secretary of Education is scheduled for this morning at 10 AM in the U.S. Senate Education Committee.  Assuming Cardona is confirmed by the committee and subsequently on the floor of the U.S. Senate, his first big test as Education Secretary will be his decision about what to do about federally mandated high-stakes student testing in this COVID-19 school year.

A groundswell of opposition to student testing continues to grow. On Saturday, the Washington Post‘s Valerie Strauss reported that educators across the states are asking Cardona “to give states permission not to give students federally mandated standardized tests this spring.”  Last year Trump’s education secretary Betsy DeVos cancelled the testing right after schools shut down nationwide due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier last week, Strauss reported: “This is the second straight year that states are asking for waivers… This week, the U.S. Education Department sent a letter to chief state school officers saying the February 1 deadline for seeking a waiver was being extended though it didn’t set a new deadline. It promised states that it would soon provide details on submitting waiver requests….” Strauss adds that New York and Michigan have already requested waivers from standardized testing this spring.

Last Tuesday, FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, convened a virtual, national town hall where experts detailed some of the many problems this spring with the logistics, the validity and the uses of the standardized testing regime mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act annually for all 3rd-8th graders and once for high school students.

Dr. Lisa Escarcega described logistical challenges and asked participants to consider who would benefit from testing this spring and who would be harmed. A member of the Colorado State Board of Education, Escarcega described the many calls from her constituents trying to figure out how to get enough computers back in school to use for test administration. She explained that school districts have regularly loaned out school computers to students who have lacked access during the pandemic to online learning being provided by their schools and added that educators were struggling with the idea of taking back—for testing purposes—the very computers which their students are using to connect with their teachers in online classes.

Other speakers, including Rep. Jamal Bowman (D-NY); Dr. Julian Vasquez Heilig, Dean of the College of Education at the University of Kentucky;  Dr. Jack Schneider, an education historian from the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and co-author of the new book, The Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door; and Dr. Lorrie Shepard a professor of research and evaluation methodology at of the University of Colorado, described the special challenges during this school year.

In a recent Education Week column, Dr. Shepard summarizes many of the critiques aired in the FairTest town hall: “One of the main arguments for testing this spring is to document the extent of learning loss, especially disproportionate losses affecting poor children and communities of color.  We are told those data would then be used to allocate additional resources to support students who have fallen the furthest behind. Indeed, massive investments are needed…. We already have enough evidence of COVID impacts to warrant federal investments.”

Shepard continues: “Testing advocates should also consider the technical difficulties of testing during a pandemic. Remote testing requires security protocols that would violate privacy laws in some states, and even with such protocols, remote and in-person test results could not be aggregated or compared as if they were equivalent. Bringing all students into schools for testing when some are still learning remotely is unfair. Consider, too, that the many students who are now absent from remote learning would likely be absent from testing, skewing results compared with previous years.”

Valerie Strauss reprinted a letter addressed to Dr. Cardona from 74 national, state and local organizations and more than 10,000 individuals demanding that, once confirmed as Secretary of Education, Dr. Cardona  would give states waivers, if the states submit requests, to cancel the testing in the current school year. Here is what the letter says: “It does not take a standardized assessment to know that for millions of America’s children, the burden of learning remotely, either full- or part-time, expands academic learning gaps between haves and have nots. Whenever children are able to return fully to their classrooms, every instructional moment should be dedicated to teaching, not to teasing out test score gaps that we already know exist. If the tests are given this spring, the scores will not be released until the fall of 2021 when students have different teachers and may even be enrolled in a different school. Scores will have little to no diagnostic values when they finally arrive. Simply put, a test is a measure, not a remedy. 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.”

Among the organizations signing the letter are the Network for Public Education, the Schott Foundation for Public Education, FairTest, the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, the Journey for Justice Alliance, In the Public Interest, the National Superintendents Roundtable, and Defending the Early Years.