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Ed in the Apple: Will Secretary of Education Cardona Grant Standardized Test Waivers to States?

Secretary of Education Designee Cardona testified at his Senate Education Committee confirmation hearing (Watch here); committee members have five minutes to ask and receive answers: a preview of Cardona policies? Maybe. One of the first questions was whether he would grant waivers allowing states not to administer standardized grades 3-8 tests. Chalkbeat reports,

Miguel Cardona sent mixed messages… how he would approach federally required standardized testing this year,

“If the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person, I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them,” But he suggested he still believes testing could be useful this year.

“If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support and resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic,”

Senator Burr followed up by asking whether states should be able to make their own decisions.

Cardona responded: “I feel that states should not only have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing it and what’s best for their students, but also the accountability measures and whether or not those assessments should really be tied into any accountability measures.”

His comments don’t provide clarity on how he would approach this issue, suggesting that Cardona is sympathetic to both the arguments for and against testing this year. But his statement hints that he may look for ways to allow states to decide what to do with testing data without eliminating testing completely.

Last year the pandemic exploded only weeks before the scheduled tests and Secretary DeVos granted waivers, this year we are more than two months removed form the dates of the tests.

Many are asking that tests should be given to measure “learning loss.”

A new term, “learning loss,” McKinsey Associates predicts, substantial learning losses, especially for students of color,

Black and Hispanic students continue to be more likely to remain remote and are less likely to have access to the prerequisites of learning—devices, internet access, and live contact with teachers. Left unaddressed, these opportunity gaps will translate into wider achievement gaps….  the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, … with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.

CREDO, the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford chooses the term “COVID slide“and targets the “slide” data in 19 states.

Will some sort of testing be required to determine the severity of “COVID Slide”?  Should the feds require such testing or is it the responsibility of the state or school district, or, is “testing for understanding” the ordinary work of teachers?

Why are states required to give grades 3-8 tests?  A little history: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act   (ESEA) was passed in the 1965 and Title I of the Act provides what we refer to as Title 1, billions of dollars targeted to poverty schools, poverty defined by percentages of students eligible for free and reduced lunch- btw, a crude tool. The law was reauthorized every five years with minor changes, until 2002.

No Child Left Behind  (NCLB), a bipartisan law required annual testing, and, there was no great uproar, until Arne Duncan. The Common Core and Race to the Top attempted to change the nature of teaching in every classroom, an attempt that exploded into the test Opt Out movement and vigorous opposition to the required tests, by teachers, and, for many, testing in general.

The Every Student Succeeds Act (2015), the reauthorization of ESEA made many changes in the law; why did it retain the annual testing requirements?

Wade Henderson, the leader of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of over 200 organizations was a powerful advocate of testing; Randi Weingarten, the leader of the American Federation of Teachers called for less frequent testing, Henderson was emphatic, and prevailed,

Tests should track students’ progress toward state standards, and those standards have to align with what students need to know to succeed in college or in the workforce. Without data to show that students are on track, it could be all too easy for disadvantaged children to receive a substandard education.

Once confirmed, Cardona will confront the testing issue.

Diane Ravitch opposes the whole idea of standardized testing (Read here)

, the standardized tests have no diagnostic value.. Teachers never learn what their individual students do or do not know. The tests do not help the students or their teachers. They do not reduce inequity. They do not narrow or close achievement gaps. Because of the tests, schools have sacrificed the arts, civics, history, science, even recess. They have harmed the quality of education.

Some argue that teachers know their students and tests aren’t necessary; however, inter-rater reliability is a challenge, different teachers have different standards. (Read evaluation of Vermont Portfolio program here).

The Center for Assessment does not recommend large scale tests to identify/quantify learning loss (Read entire article here – an excellent analysis).

… professional development on good classroom assessment practice is much more promising in addressing COVID-related achievement gaps than an approach that tries first to solve the learning loss measurement problem within the schooling parameters of a typical fall. In their EdWeek article, Hill and Loeb write that informal assessments by classroom teachers (such as those in a high-quality curriculum) are better than something more comprehensive at the beginning of the year.

The assessment question goes far beyond whether or not to grant waivers to states. Scott Marion, the Center for Assessment, ha s written thoughtfully about assessment, “Accountability as a Roadblock to Assessment Reform: Advocating for Changes to Federal Accountability Requirements to Enable Innovative Assessment,” (Read here)

Marion writes, Accountability must shift from a top-down approach that relies heavily on a single end-of-year test to one that recognizes and supports the more holistic nature of learning and assessment reform and goes on to mirror Diane Ravitch,

There is a long history of negative effects of accountability tests on classroom instruction because, in part, teachers create activities to mimic the types of test items on the summative test, and district leaders overemphasize interim tests as part of test preparation. Therefore, firewalling the accountability test, while well-intentioned, could work at cross purposes to the innovative reform. 

Marion does not support abandoning evaluation,

 I am not advocating a laissez-faire approach to school accountability.

He is advocating “balanced assessment systems,” and discusses in detail in a policy paper, “The Challenges and Opportunities of Balanced Systems of Assessment,” (Read policy paper here)

What makes an assessment system balanced? An assessment system is balanced when the assessments in the system are coherently linked through clearly specified learning targets, they comprehensively provide multiple sources of evidence to support educational decision-making, and they continuously document student progress over time.

Soon to be confirmed as Secretary of Education Cardona should grant waivers to states, the current testing system is deeply flawed under the best of circumstances; hopefully Cardona will begin a discussion of an assessment system that is useful to classroom teachers, parents, school and school district leaders and the public.

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Peter Goodman

Peter Goodman is a career NYC high school teacher, education consultant, and district representative for the United Federation of Teachers. ...