*this piece was first published by USA Today
When Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020, many of our nation’s pandemic-weary educators had reason for optimism. The change in leadership meant an exit for the spectacularly unpopular Betsy DeVos, a Secretary of Education whose lack of ed credentials and support for privatization had galled public school teachers for four years. It meant we’d have a real teacher as First Lady in Dr. Jill Biden, someone with first-hand knowledge of the plight of educators who could hopefully encourage President Biden to live up to his lofty campaign promises about education.
One such promise had to do with standardized testing.
In December 2019, at an MSNBC public education forum for Democratic presidential hopefuls, Biden was asked if he would commit to ending standardized testing in public schools. His answer was emphatic and clear:
“Yes. You are preaching to the choir. Teaching to a test underestimates and discounts the things that are most important for students to know.”
One month into Biden’s tenure as president, that educator optimism took a big hit recently when the Department of Education released a memo clarifying its position on standardized testing for spring 2021, saying the department would not consider “blanket waivers of assessments.”
As Biden pick for Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has not yet been confirmed, the memo was written by Acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum. Rosenblum has been a strong supporter of the use of standardized tests and a vocal critic of those who opt out of such tests in his role as Executive Director of education reform nonprofit The Education Trust–New York.
The Department of Education memo explains that standardized testing is necessary at this moment because “it is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning.” At the same time, the DOE acknowledges that “the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year,” and suggests that remote administration of tests is one approach for districts to consider.
As a teacher who has been teaching online in Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools for the last year, I find it hard to believe that the Department of Education can talk about the importance of accurately measuring the impact of the pandemic on learning and suggest remote administration of standardized tests with the same breath–and keep a straight face while doing it.
Questions about the general legitimacy of this form of assessment for measuring student learning aside, the results I’ve seen from formative standardized tests administered online this school year as a classroom teacher have been all over the place.
Some students are repeatedly flagged for “Rapid Guessing” by the testing software, indicating they aren’t spending enough time on each test item to actually be reading the questions and answer choices. Those students’ results are generally significantly lower than I know their abilities to be from my own classroom level assessment data. Other scores are so high and out of line with results from previous years that they raise questions about who might actually be taking the test on the other end.
As a result, much of the test data is highly suspect and has to be taken with a huge grain of salt when making instructional decisions.
The Department of Education memo argues that standardized testing during the pandemic is also essential for equity purposes, saying the data will help us to “be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs.”
This virus has disproportionately impacted people of color, and that fact has led, unsurprisingly, to students of color choosing remote instruction in higher numbers. Given the alarming lack of validity of test data when assessments are administered at home, it makes zero sense to proceed with remote administration out of an urgent need for accurate data.
That’s not to say that students should all have to come to the physical school building to take standardized tests. In the absence of guidance from the Trump administration, North Carolina schools required students to report to buildings to take required first semester End of Course tests–even if their families had opted for full remote out of health concerns. The Department of Education memo acknowledges that’s not the right approach to take, saying, “We do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test.”
In a district like Charlotte Mecklenburg, where more than 40% of students are attending school remotely due to the ongoing high rates of community COVID spread, that doesn’t leave schools with any good options for testing in school year 2020-2021.
We all agree that understanding where our children are academically and devising a plan to meet their needs is critical. That’s what our public schools do every day, pandemic or no pandemic. Forcing students to take standardized tests in the middle of a public health crisis will not enable us to do that work better. Such an exercise would only exponentially increase the stress that students and staff already face in order to generate data that is largely unusable.
If the federal government is truly interested in finding out what resources and supports public schools need at this moment, why don’t they try asking us? We’d be more than happy to tell them.