The current education secretary, Betsy DeVos, approved waivers to states allowing them not to administer the annual exams last spring as the coronavirus pandemic led schools to close. She said recently she wouldn’t do it again, but Biden’s triumph in November’s elections means the decision is no longer hers. It’s up to Cardona — assuming he is confirmed by the Senate, as expected — and the Biden administration to decide whether to provide states flexibility from the federal law.
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.
But just how much the scores from the spring tests ever reveal about student progress, even in a non-pandemic year, is a major source of contention in the education world.
Supporters say that they 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 got 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.
Enter Cardona into this testing thicket. Biden last week surprised the education establishment by naming Cardona, who less than two years ago was an assistant superintendent of a 9,000-student school district. One big factor in his favor for the Biden team was that he has not been a partisan in the education reform wars of the past two decades. Yet he won’t be able to avoid it over this issue.
Last spring, Connecticut, like other states, did not administer spring standardized tests after receiving waivers to the federal law from DeVos.
Cardona has said he wants students to take the exams this spring but with a caveat: He doesn’t want the results used to hold individual teachers, schools and districts accountable for student progress on the scores. (DeVos, too, had said she would have granted that kind of flexibility to states in 2021.)
“This [academic] year, we want to provide some opportunity for them [students] to tell us what they learned or what gaps exist so we can target resources,” Cardona said at a recent news conference before he was tapped by Biden, according to the Connecticut Post.
The education department he heads in Connecticut released a memo in October calling state assessments “important guideposts to our promise of equity.” It said: “They are the most accurate tool available to tell us if all students — regardless of race/ethnicity, gender, socioeconomic status, English proficiency, disability, or zip code — are growing and achieving at the highest levels.”
Cardona’s press secretary, Peter Yazbak, said the Biden transition team was answering all questions about his role as education secretary. The Biden team did not immediately comment about whether the new administration would consider providing waivers from the tests.
Cardona is already facing a growing chorus of voices who are demanding some flexibility from the federal law, including some that say forcing students to take the tests for any reason is a waste of money and time.
The Council of Chief State School Officers, a nonprofit that represents state education chiefs, released a statement this month calling for unspecified flexibility around the spring testing requirements. While its members are “committed to knowing where students are academically,” it said, “states need flexibility in the way they collect and report such data.” The CCSSO said it wants to work with the Biden administration “on a streamlined, consistent process that gives states the flexibility they need on accountability measures in the coming year.”
Others were more direct, including the two major teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. In a letter to the Biden transition team, Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, wrote:
“We know there are concerns that not having this data will make student achievement during covid-19 and particularly deeply troubling equity gaps less visible, that this will mean two years of lost data. However, there is no way that the data that would come out of a spring 2021 testing cycle would accurately reflect anything, and certainly not accurate enough to hold school systems accountable for results. But curriculum-linked diagnostic assessment is what will most aid covid-19 academic recovery, not testing for testing’s sake.
“This is why a waiver strategy is so necessary,” it says.
Another issue is whether the tests can be administered to all students safely this spring. Millions of students are still learning remotely from home as the pandemic continues to infect and kill Americans. Though Biden has called for the safe reopening of most schools within 100 days of his inauguration, it is not clear whether that will happen or whether the tests can be securely administered online.
Bob Schaeffer, interim director of a nonprofit called the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, which works to stop the misuse of standardized tests, noted that DeVos recently sought the cancellation of the 2021 administration of the national test known as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) because it could not be administered effectively and securely.
“IF NAEP is cancelled for 2021 due to pandemic-related concerns, how can federal and state mandated exams be administered safely and accurately this academic year?” Schaeffer said. Meanwhile, his group, FairTest, has launched a national effort for a suspension of all high-stakes standardized tests scheduled for spring 2021.
It’s not only state superintendents, teachers unions and testing critics who are looking for flexibility from the federal testing mandate.
As early as June, officials in Georgia said they would seek a waiver from the spring 2021 tests. DeVos’s Education Department denied the request, so this month, state officials agreed to dramatically reduce the importance of end-of-course exam grades for the 2020-2021 school year. They will have virtually no weight on students’ course grades.
In South Carolina, SCNOW.com reported, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham, a Republican who is among Trump’s strongest supporters, signed onto a letter calling for a testing waiver for spring 2021, as did Rep. Tom Rice (R).
Scores of Texas state representatives from both sides of the political aisle have joined to ask State Commissioner of Education Mike Morath to seek necessary federal waivers to allow the Texas Education Agency to cancel the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, test in the 2020-2021 school year.
A letter, sent by the office of Democratic Rep. Diego Bernal said: “The covid slide, an academic deficit that the agency has widely recognized, has resulted in students, across the state, being behind grade-level in nearly every subject. Instead of proceeding with the administration of the STAAR as planned, the agency, along with our districts and campuses, should be focused on providing high-quality public education with an emphasis on ensuring the health and safety of students and educators.”
In Ohio, Dayton schools Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli recently said that that state should seek a federal waiver from the spring standardized testing, WHIO-TV reported. “Using the standardized testing as we typically have done is inappropriate and ineffective,” Lolli said.
“The only thing it does is it rates poverty,” she said. “We know that the lowest scoring schools across this country are schools that have high numbers of children who live in poverty. That’s the only thing we’re doing [by testing] is identifying those locations once again.”
In North Carolina, the State Board of Education in early December tentatively approved a proposal that would have students take the exams but that would ask the federal government if it can have flexibility in how it uses the scores of the tests.
In Colorado, advocates for English-language learners have asked the state Board of Education to cancel ACCESS, the test these students take annually, or to make sure parents know that they can opt their children out without penalty.
Other actions are being taken in other states to persuade officials to seek and lobby for federal waivers, and that is likely to pick up in pace as spring approaches.