Happy Pandemic New Year! We’ve done it - a whole year of Zoom teaching and learning, cycles of school openings and closings, and existential questions like, “Will any of us, including our children, be okay?” (maybe?) and “If it’s in a juice box, is it even still wine?” (No, it’s adult juice, you beautiful, inventive rock star.)
There is a lot of education news that has happened over the past two weeks, both in New York City and across the whole country. Some highlights:
The federal government announced mandatory statewide student assessments for this school year
Dr. Miguel Cardona was confirmed as Secretary of Education, bringing classroom expertise back to the United States Department of Education
The Center for Disease Control published recommendations on how to re-open schools as the pandemic continues
Richard Carranza resigned as Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education (NYCDOE), effective as of March 15. Meisha Ross Porter, a long-time NYC educator and current Executive Superintendent of the Bronx community school districts, will be taking over
Teacher evaluations will be happening in NYC this year, albeit with changes to the classroom observation component and use of student achievement data, as agreed to by the United Federation of Teachers and the NYCDOE
These headlines touch on some of the most salient questions in education policy: What is the role of standardized testing and should we require it, especially in the middle of a pandemic? What role should the federal government play in shaping education policy? How does the largest school system in the United States serve its students? What is the role of teacher evaluation in shaping teacher professional learning and advancement? In the coming weeks, I’ll look at these issues through the lens of these headlines and those yet to come. The goal is to help contextualize the news and help us as a community understand the salient issues at this critical moment in time. This week, I’ll explore the first issue on the list - the federal government’s announcement of mandatory statewide student assessments this spring.
On February 22, the federal government announced that states would not be allowed to cancel federally mandated standardized exams this school year, despite the on-going pandemic. In a letter to state school officers, the United States Department of Education indicated that it would not be “inviting blanket waivers of assessments.” There are two main reasons for this decision, according to the Education Department. The first pertains to transparency and public reporting. “It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success,” Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary in the office of elementary and secondary education, wrote in the letter. The second pertains to assessment. “It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning,” Rosenblum said, justifying the need to administer tests now as a means of preparing us for next school year.
However, the guidance was clear that states would be given ample flexibility in administering the tests to account for the strain of statewide standardized testing at a time when schools are in various stages of fully remote, hybrid learning, and in-person instruction. States were advised not to convene students in classrooms for testing where it is still unsafe to do so. They were urged to consider flexibility in terms of, 1) Administering a shortened version of exams; 2) Offering assessments remotely, where possible; and 3) Extending the testing window, even into the summer or fall 2021.
Sara’s Hot Take
At a time when many students, their families, and teachers are struggling to cope with grief, isolation, and economic loss, the requirement to devote precious learning time and financial resources to statewide testing is ill-advised. We know from teachers and school leaders that the pandemic has had a disproportionate negative impact on the academic achievement of students of color, students from lower income families, students with disabilities, multi-language learners, and students in temporary housing, such as shelters. Even in our pre-pandemic days, these were the same groups of students that our traditional methods of assessments identified as lagging behind their white, wealthier peers. Administering standardized tests at this time not only gives us no new information about what educational inequity looks like, it compounds the trauma, putting students and their caregivers in the position of feeling personally responsible for gaps in their learning during a year when everyone struggled.
Testing this year is out of sync with trauma-informed approaches to teaching and learning. Given the test anxiety that students experience even in the best of circumstances, we must ask whether testing is necessary when our attention should be focused on fortifying student socio-emotional learning and well-being, not just academic learning. The irregularity of the school year - unpredictable openings and closings of schools, changes from hybrid learning to remote learning, changing class rosters - means that teachers and students have struggled to keep up a pace that would ensure students are prepared to take end-of-year assessments. These challenges are compounded for younger students who have perhaps never taken a test before and are unsure of what to expect.
Moreover, testing conditions are less than ideal, which raises questions about the validity of results. Over the past year, students and caregivers have struggled to engage in online learning, lacking basics like sufficient devices for all students at home, good Internet service, and healthy learning environments free from distractions. Administering remote tests under these circumstances only serves students who are already positioned to do well; those students who have struggled to access online learning will continue to do so when it comes time for the test. Thus, assessing students under these conditions questions the validity of the results. Are we assessing student learning or assessing the ability of students and caregivers to access the required technology? In the case where students are split between in-person and online learning, how do we even compare the results to one another, knowing the unique advantages and disadvantages students will experience in these different settings depending on their circumstances at home? These questions about the validity of the results suggest that a testing mandate during a global pandemic may be less about caring for student learning and more about maintaining systems of accountability, and oppression, that use test scores to divide students by race, class, English proficiency, and developmental and intellectual ability.
Given the federal mandate, it is advisable that to the extent possible, districts and states should work together to submit waiver requests for places where the pandemic has had the most devastating effects. Where waivers are not requested or granted, states and districts should work together to utilize the full range of flexibility offerings. This includes limiting the amount of time devoted to testing, prioritizing safety of students over test administration, and pushing back test administration until later dates. Teachers should be involved in shaping the implementation plans for assessments, as they will be responsible for preparing students and administering them. Most importantly, the use of these scores should be limited to helping identify schools and students most in need of resources and services to ensure they are supported when schools reopen. Scores should not be used to evaluate teachers, schools, and students.
In education, we should have a responsibility to do no harm. The failures of our healthcare, economic, and education systems have already traumatized our most vulnerable students. States have a duty to minimize further trauma by diminishing the impact of the federal government’s mandate to carry out standardized assessments.