Nearly a year after schools shut down statewide because of the COVID-19 pandemic, School District U-46 Superintendent Tony Sanders said it’s been tough convincing many parents that the buildings are safe for their children’s return.
So when Sanders recently learned that the U.S. Department of Education still expects every public school system in the country to administer federally mandated standardized tests to their students this spring, he was shocked and disheartened.
“I can’t even get families to want to let their children come into the school building right now to learn, so how would we ask them to do that just to take a test?” Sanders said. More than half of all students in Elgin-based U-46 are still in remote learning full time.
“Nobody’s listening,” he said. “It still begs the question, why is this a year we must test?”
But federal education officials, saying data from assessments will be an important way to gauge the pandemic’s impact on student learning, issued a blanket denial of testing waivers in late February, shortly before the swearing-in Tuesday of President Joe Biden’s new Sec. of Education Miguel Cardona. The announcement came despite pleas from school districts nationwide — including about 700 in Illinois, as well as the state’s superintendent of education — to give them a reprieve from testing.
“To be successful once schools have reopened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary in the federal Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in a Feb. 22 letter sent to state school superintendents. “We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic. ... In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing.”
Biden’s “first priority is to safely reopen schools and get students back in classrooms, learning face-to-face from teachers with their fellow students,” Rosenblum wrote.
The letter stressed that if it’s unsafe, students should not be brought into schools “for the sole purpose of taking a test.” Yet rather than forgoing the tests completely this year, the federal agency said it will provide “flexibility” that could include remote, shortened or delayed assessments, and that waivers could be sought for some accountability measures, which could include the reporting of data on annual school report cards.
Even so, the letter to the U.S. Department of Education signed by hundreds of Illinois schools chiefs said that, given all the ongoing challenges posed by the pandemic, and how much face-to-face time instructional time has been lost, standardized testing should not be a priority right now.
“We are not opposed to accountability ... in normal times, but these are anything but normal. Rather, like our colleagues across the nation, we are working diligently to get a larger portion of students back into schools for in-person instruction, working to address the social and emotional, and academic, needs of our students which includes plans to address lost opportunities, getting staff and community members vaccinated, and serving as a lifeline for so many members of our communities,” the letter states. “Let us focus on those priorities rather than on the logistics of testing kids.”
Federal law requires states to provide accountability standards, which in Illinois includes designating each school as exemplary, commendable, targeted or comprehensive, to help families and communities understand a school’s performance, and those ratings are included in the Illinois Report Card provided by the Illinois State Board of Education. Federally mandated testing is a part of how that’s determined.
In advocating for testing waivers, Illinois Superintendent of Education Carmen Ayala has noted more than 1 million schoolchildren in Illinois were still in remote learning full-time.
“We believe that bringing students back in-person only to immediately begin state testing will have a detrimental effect on the goals of supporting their social-emotional wellbeing, mental health, and reconnection with the school community,” Ayala wrote in a letter to federal authorities.
ISBE spokeswoman Jackie Matthews said Wednesday the state board is working with the U.S. education department to provide maximum flexibility to Illinois districts.
If waivers had been granted, this year would have marked the second in a row that Illinois students missed taking the Illinois Assessment of Readiness. Typically administered each spring to the state’s public school students in third through eighth grade, the IAR assesses the state’s common-core learning standards for English, language arts and math.
At the high school level, the SAT that’s usually administered to all juniors was also waived last spring but was provided in the fall to the same group of students — this year’s high school seniors — who needed to take it fulfill the state’s graduation requirement, Matthews said.
The federal government’s policy on assessments has also faced criticism from teachers unions.
“Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now,” National Education Association President Becky Pringle said in a Feb. 22 statement, adding she hopes “every state will submit a request to suspend high stakes school rankings and potentially harmful sanctions against already struggling schools.”
Standardized tests given “during the global health crisis should not determine a student’s future, evaluate educators, or punish schools; nor should they come at the expense of precious learning time that students could be spending with their educators,” she said.
Former President Donald Trump’s secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, was widely lambasted by teachers unions last fall for her stance that federally mandated state assessments should be held in 2021.
But Bob Schaeffer, public education director at FairTest, an organization critical of standardized testing, said it shouldn’t be surprising that the Biden education team is also in support of assessments “because inside the beltway, there has long been bipartisan consensus on test-driven educational reform.”
Though Schaeffer suspects schools will receive “significant flexibility” in how tests are given, he still questions their merit.
“You can’t really draw a valid sample, because they were canceled last year, so this is really an exercise in collecting data for data’s sake,” Schaeffer said.
Other experts also warn that testing already vulnerable students during the pandemic is unlikely to yield meaningful results.
“Given the collective trauma that we, as a society, have gone through, now is not the time to use standardized testing as any measure of achievement,” said Lisa M. Downey, director of undergraduate educator preparation and an associate professor at National Louis University. “Because these tests can be very stressful for students and teachers, we need to be able to assure them that there aren’t any repercussions for lower-than- recommended scores this year.”
Still, Downey said test scores can help educators understand what learning loss may have occurred and detect specific gaps in knowledge to “help guide instruction in the coming year.”
Sanders, of District U-46, said his school system has “plenty of local data that we can look at” to make such determinations. He’s hopeful that, at minimum, this spring’s testing can be delayed until next fall.
“Next fall would be a little more reasonable, because by then, we should be poised and ready for more kids in the classroom,” he said. “But now is not the time.”