Building Back Better?

Published by Robin Jacobowitz on

by Robin Jacobowitz and Fred Smith

This week, the United States Department of Education (USDE) sent a letter to chief state school officers directing them to administer state-level standardized testing in 2021. 

This annual testing, waived in spring 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is required under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and has had bipartisan support. It encompasses English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests in grades 3 – 8; science in grades 4 and 8; and one test each in ELA, math, and science at the high school level. These tests are now needed, the federal Department of Education rationalizes, to “understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need.” 

We focus this blog post on the 3 – 8 statewide exams for two reasons. The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has expressed disappointment in their resumption, which would target more than one million students. At the same time, the plan for the high school-level tests, known as the Regents Exams, remains in flux. 

We support the search for understanding the impacts the pandemic has had on our students and schools. But we object to the premise that imposing the tests in 2021 will yield any meaningful answers either about its effect on students and teachers or regarding the numerous ways instruction has been organized and delivered this school year. 

We find no justifiable logic in administering these statewide tests to a population of young people already enduring a year of disruption and hardship. As students and teachers struggle through unmatched upheaval, the USDE is choosing to deprive them of precious instructional time and instead subject them to mind-numbing exams whose worth, as we have previously written, was questionable even in good years

These exams are not needed to tell us what we already know: student learning has suffered this year, and even more so for students from disadvantaged and traditionally marginalized backgrounds. In requiring the tests, the USDE is reverting to old habits in a crisis and failing to exert educational leadership. In 2021, testing becomes a ship without an anchor.

Then there are the practical concerns. 

We object to the loss of time and resources that administering the tests will entail. The conduct of mass standardized testing is not a simple endeavor. There is a multi-million dollar price tag that goes to private vendors who are responsible for test development. Even if the 2021 exams incorporate questions developed but not used in 2020, there are the associated administrative costs of test administration — producing the exams (in print or computerized form) and ancillary materials, and providing for their shipment and security. Added to these are the contractual expenditures paid to testing companies for scoring, data processing and reporting services. 

Beyond that is the immeasurable value of the time and effort that students and teachers invest in test preparation and sitting for the exams — and the toll paid in test anxiety during an already extremely stressful time. 

Moreover, with testing suspended in 2020 at the federal level, what is the proposed baseline against which to measure pupil achievement, class performance, different learning arrangements and various modes of testing?  In “normal” times, these are legitimate areas of investigation for state- and district-wide test populations, as are investigation of subgroup outcomes and comparison of ways in which instruction is delivered. That’s not the case here.

The USDE acknowledges the complexities of the moment and makes a virtue of necessity by allowing states to have some flexibility — granting discretion in “reducing the length of the tests, offering remote administration of the tests, or extending the window for the administration of the tests, including the possibility of administering the test over the summer or in the fall.” 

To contemplate bringing students and teachers to school over the summer for the purpose of taking a test clearly disregards the weight they have shouldered this school year and ignores the serious financial straits many districts currently face. 

The “flexibility” offered by the USDE renders the process confusing and cumbersome, and in effect, un-standardizes the procedures. Most significant for a testing regime seeking useful information, this flexibility makes the tests unreliable. 

Such concessions place an even greater burden on administrators as they figure out how to give the tests; on teachers who must adjust their lesson plans to accommodate the exams; and on students who are targeted to take them. The concessions beg questions about what we learn from a scrambled exercise in which participating school districts follow different procedures. 

With New York and other states balking at the prospect of testing this year, maybe we’ll see a re-awakening of the grass roots opt-out movement.  We agree that it is important to understand how our students have fared through this pandemic. But forcing the administration of state-level tests is an impediment to that goal which does not help us reach it. 

We should turn to our teachers for a frontline assessment of where their students are and elicit their thoughts about how we might address deficiencies and inequities going forward. 

Instead, it seems that Washington D.C. is bent on taking the absurdity of testing to another level. President Biden promised that teachers would have a friend in the White House. USDE’s first step, however, signals business as usual. Is this how we “build back better?


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