As U.S. Schools Resume Testing, Many Withdraw
By COLLIN BINKLEY
Editor AP Education
Standardized testing returns to schools across the country this spring, but millions of students will face shorter exams that come with lower stakes, and most families have the option to forgo testing altogether.
With the new flexibility of the Biden administration, states are adopting a patchwork of testing plans that aim to reduce exam stress while retaining some data on student learning. The lenient approach means large swathes of students will not be tested, shattering hopes for a full picture of the amount of learning that has been delayed by the pandemic.
“We’re going to end up with a very imperfect dataset,” said Robin Lake, director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. “This is something our country will have to commit to following and learning for at least the next few years, and maybe the next decade.”
Some of the country’s largest districts plan to test only a fraction of their students, as many continue to learn remotely. In New York, students must choose to be tested this year. In Los Angeles, most students are not invited to take state exams this year. Other districts are reducing questions or testing fewer topics.
This is the latest episode in a long battle over school testing and, as in the past, parents are polarized. Some require tests to get a feel for their children’s progress. Others do not see the need to subject their children to this kind of stress.
As a teacher Jay Wamsted thinks tests are useful. But when his sixth-grade daughter, Kira, asked to step down this year, he saw no reason to object. He already knows that she has to catch up on math after months of distance learning. And as a teacher in his school, he knew that many other students were withdrawing as well, undermining the value of the results.
“I know she’s a little late, and I don’t need this data,” said Wamsted, who lives in Smyrna, Georgia. “Taking a month to collect data that won’t mean anything to any of their teachers next year – it seems like a waste of time.”
Parent Abby Norman found her third year daughter crying in her bedroom. Morning tests were scheduled to start at his school near Atlanta. 9-year-old Priscilla had just returned to class after learning from a distance and feared she might not be prepared.
“She was so nervous about this test that I don’t care at all, I don’t care,” said Norman, who is a preacher. “I ended up saying to him, ‘If you want to lick the test and give it back, I don’t care.'”
With that confidence, Abby agreed to take the tests and got a score “almost off the charts,” her mother said. However, Norman does not want the students to have been placed in this situation at all.
Several states pressured the Biden administration to cancel standardized testing entirely for a second year, but the Education Department was aiming for common ground: it told states to test as many students as possible without requiring them to come only for exams. The goal, according to the agency, should be to measure the impact of the pandemic and identify how to help students recover.
Recognizing the challenges of the pandemic, the agency called on states to shorten or delay testing and urged them to ease the stakes for students. But the ministry subsequently granted additional leniency to some states, prompting criticism that it had not set a clear bar.
Washington, DC, got permission to cancel the tests because 88% of students were learning remotely, but the agency rejected similar requests from Michigan, New York and Georgia. Requests for reduced testing were granted in Colorado and Oregon, but a plan to reduce the test pool in Washington state was rejected.
Those who opposed the tests say it’s the last thing students need after such a tough year. Schools have other ways to assess students, they say, and tests only reduce class time.
Michigan’s education chief criticized the uneven flexibility given to states. Michigan schools have already used other tests to assess students, he said, and more tests “will not tell anything specifically about the needs of our children.” New York state officials argued that testing is unlikely to yield useful data given the variability of instructions during the pandemic.
“In fact, the students who need state assessments the most – those who receive distance education – are themselves the children who are not required to take the test,” senior officials wrote. state education in an April press release.
Advocates of testing counter that it is always useful to collect as much data as possible. Lake, of the University of Washington, said that even imperfect results can help shed light on the scale of the problem schools face when helping students recover.
“State-level standardized tests are the most consistent data we’ve had to track academic progress, so it would be a huge missed opportunity to forgo these tests this year,” she said. “Stealing blind is not a responsible position for a public servant.”
Some critics criticize the Biden administration for allowing half-hearted attempts at evaluation. They point to places like New York, where the head of outgoing schools urged parents in February to consider withdrawing from testing. Oregon’s two largest districts have voted to defy state orders and skip the tests. The state says its sanction will be to submit a compliance plan next year.
“These states are just playing games. They don’t even pretend to make an effort to test students, and the Biden administration is letting them get away with it,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas Institute. B. Fordham, curator. think tank on education.
If the tests aren’t feasible now, Petrilli said, it should be done in the fall. Maryland, New Jersey, and Washington state have postponed testing, and it’s an option for districts in California.
In some states, officials are pushing testing forward as they have in the past. In Tennessee and Arkansas, education officials have said all healthy students should take state exams, which are only offered in person. More than 1.4 million tests have already been given in Arkansas this spring, and the state is on track to test at least 95% of students, according to the state’s education department.
In normal grades, tests required by the federal government are used to assess school effectiveness and to chart student progress, both as individuals and in demographic groups. In some states, students must pass certain tests to advance to the next class or graduate from high school. But this year, most states are focused on measuring student growth and letting schools and students fend for themselves for the results.
After last year’s tests were canceled, it was hoped that this year’s exams would provide the most comprehensive look yet at the impact of the pandemic on education. But the inconsistency between states now makes broad analysis impossible, said Scott Marion, executive director of the nonprofit Center for Assessment, which helps states design and assess tests.
Still, he believes the results will be of value. As schools begin the long process of helping students recover, he said, this year’s data will provide a basis for measurement.
“I think the data can be a useful baseline for the future,” he said. “If this is the low point, or close to it, how are our children going to come out of it in the future?”
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