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States Must Test Student Learning This Year, Biden Administration Says

Bubble sheet test with pencil.

The U.S. Education Department says states must resume the annual testing of students that was suspended a year ago amid the pandemic.

For the past two decades, federal law has required schools to test students once each year in math and reading, in grades three through eight and once in high school. And they are required to publicly report these standardized test results, broken out by racial and ethnic group and disability status, and in some cases, hold schools accountable with various sanctions if their students score too low.

In March of 2020, with nearly every school in the nation suddenly pivoting to remote learning, the department waived these requirements.

But in a Feb. 22 letter to state schools chiefs and governors, the department wrote that states must again give these tests and report the results. It remains "vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success," the letter says.

States must also publicly report other indicators, like chronic absenteeism, as well as, where possible, information on students' access to computers and the Internet for remote learning. This information is intended "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."

The department is granting states lots of flexibility, but critics of the current accountability system are still unhappy with this move to reinstate mandatory testing.

The department invites states to request waivers of the requirement that they use this data to identify "failing" schools. These waivers would also exempt schools from the current requirement that at least 95% of students participate in testing. And the letter invites states to be flexible in how schools give the tests, such as by shortening the tests, administering them remotely and offering multiple testing windows into the summer and even the fall.

The move toward collecting data while reducing accountability measures effectively lowers the "stakes" on high-stakes testing. This has been a major issue of contention in education circles, with a national parent-led "opt-out" movement peaking around 2015.

Still, this news will be unwelcome for the states where leaders have already begun talking about canceling tests altogether this spring — California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Georgia, to name a few.

Some education leaders say it is logistically impossible to test most students safely and accurately, and an unwise use of limited resources in an ongoing emergency.

"While the vast majority of Georgia schools are offering in-person instruction, students are dealing with the ongoing effects of a global crisis and the trauma of necessary, but unprecedented, isolation," Georgia's Department of Education wrote in a letter requesting a waiver.

More than half of the nation's students are learning remotely or in hybrid classrooms with reduced in-person class time. Comparing this spring's results with those of any other year will be difficult. When the NWEA, a nonprofit test organization, released fall 2020 test results in December, about a quarter of students were "missing" from the data — and these were more likely to be Black and Hispanic students, from high-poverty areas, or lower-performing in the first place. So even though the students who did take the test showed progress on reading and only a little less progress than a normal year on math, there are concerns that the data do not reflect the true learning loss of the most vulnerable students.

Conversely, if tests are given remotely, students might get help from family members or look up the answers, artificially inflating the results.

"Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now," said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, in a statement urging states to seek maximum flexibility on waivers. "High-stakes standardized tests administered 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."

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