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States Push to Ditch or Downplay Standardized Tests During Virus Surge

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Pressure is growing for schools to get some kind of relief from traditional standardized tests as coronavirus cases reach new highs, and education officials in at least a few states are responding.

In Washington, President-elect Joe Biden's administration will have to decide whether to grant states waivers from federally mandated tests soon after he takes office Jan. 20. But the validity and usefulness of tests during the pandemic has been a concern for months. And at this point, states are clearly not content to wait for input or leeway from any new U.S. Department of Education leadership about the issue in general.

  • On Thursday, the Georgia state board of education voted to virtually eliminate the role state standardized tests play in students' course grades this school year. Board members voted 10-3 to make several end-of-course exams count for just .01 percent of those grades, down from the normal 20 percent, the Associated Press reported. State Superintendent Richard Woods backed the moved. Woods sharply criticized U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos' announcement in September that states should not expect testing waivers for the 2020-21 school year, a position that could change after Biden's inauguration of course.
  • South Carolina announced a similar move late last month regarding end-of-course exams; districts will be allowed to decide how much those tests count for students' grades, instead of the typical 20 percent. The Post and Courier reported that district leaders welcomed the decision.
  • On Nov. 19, the Virginia education department announced that students can take "local assessments" instead of the state Standards of Learning exams in history, social science, and English writing. "The waivers and emergency guidance will simplify the logistics of SOL testing this year and ensure that [the] COVID-19 pandemic does not unduly prevent any student from earning a diploma," said state Superintendent of Public Instruction James Lane. However, the state did not adopt those changes for the science, reading, and mathematics tests required by federal law; Lane told state school board members that it's "unlikely" the feds will waive those tests.
  • Earlier this month, California announced it would replace traditional Smarter Balanced exams with shorter versions of the test, EdSource reported.
  • A bipartisan group of Texas lawmakers say they want state superintendent Mike Morath to either cancel state STAAR exams this school year, or at least not use them to rate schools and districts. "The last thing they all need right now is the extra and added stress of STAAR," state Rep. Diego Bernal, a Democrat, told the Texas Tribune, referring to educators, parents, and students. Morath gave a noncommital response to the idea, although last summer he said he wanted the exams to be administered as usual. Like all states, Texas got a federal waiver last spring not to give exams that are typically required by the Every Student Succeeds Act. ("STAAR" stands for "State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness.")

This kind of momentum isn't universal. Utah recently announced that it plans to forge ahead with its regular standardized exams. "We believe there's actually an increased need for us to be able to attain data that can inform and enlighten us about the impacts of this pandemic on student learning," state Assistant Superindendent Darin Nielsen said, according to the Salt Lake Tribune.

Last summer the Council of Chief State School Officers stressed that while state leaders must be "nimble and innovative" in what tests are used and what they're used for during the pandemic, "Assessment tools must continue to play a key role in our education system." On Friday, a coalition of groups including the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and the Education Trust called on the federal government not to grant waivers from exams because "our families and communities cannot afford to go two years without knowing how well our students are doing in school." The groups also hailed recent federal guidance on assessments and accountability released in October.

'Challenge the Assumption'

It makes sense, as Georgia did, for states to reduce or eliminate consequences of exams specifically for students, said Chad Aldeman, a senior associate partner at Bellwether Education Partners, a nonprofit education consulting group. But he worried that educators are " running away from all consequences" of tests that could be helpful and not punitive during the pandemic.

"If the stakes are about more support and more money, we should want to overidentify students and schools, and err on that side," Aldeman said. He added that states should release at least preliminary results from exams as soon as possible to the parents and the public to make them more valuable. He said that if states effectively emphasize the tests role in assisting students and educators, " Maybe we don't have to be so concerned about security and cheating" on exams that might be administered in new ways this school year.

But in addition to longstanding skepticism about the role standardized testing plays for educators and students, headaches about how to administer in-person tests are looming as a big issue this year. Some Ohio district leaders are objecting to the idea of requiring students who are learning remotely take tests in person. And more broadly, there's concern about how much the general public will care about or rely on typical standardized test results during such widespread disruptions in schooling.

"At the end of the day, there's going to be an asterisk around any 2020-21 [test] results if they're given," Stephen Pruitt of the Southern Regional Education Board told our colleague Sarah D. Sparks in July.

Even more than an asterisk, the pandemic should underscore that the traditional standardized tests mandated by federal law simply haven't worked as desiged, and push the Biden administration and others to rethink the entire system, said Joshua Starr, the CEO of PDK International, a professional association of educators.

"This is the time to actually challenge the assumption that the state testing regimes will give us what we want," said Starr. "I have no confidence that state standardized tests this year will do that. I don't know that they've ever done that, and they certainly won't do it this year."

While Starr said that formative assessments, for example, could be useful to students and educators. But he said that in general, given the pandemic's clear and disproportionate impact on underserved students and communities, education leaders should move straight into directing more resources and support to students and families in need, without depending on tests to do so.

The ability of tests to discern trend lines in a typical fashion has also been disrupted beyond the point of being useful, including for accountability, said Daniel Koretz, a research professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education who focuses on assessments. And more broadly, he said, potential disruptions for students at home and other factors unique to the pandemic present an environment that tests simply can't control for.

"Even for diagnostic testing, there is a pretty high risk I think that we would not be able to trust comparative data," Koretz said, adding, "I wouldn't want to see what little instruction we're able to give kids now consumed by test prep."

Photo: Getty Images


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