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U.S. Department of Ed: Proceed With Standardized Testing

The U.S. Department of Education issued guidance last month that states should move ahead with standardized testing, less for accountability purposes than to see where more support is needed.

Closeup of a person fillng out answer bubbles on a test paper.
The U.S. Department of Education has advised states to go ahead with standardized testing as half of the nation’s public K-12 students continue their courses virtually amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In a Feb. 22 memo to state officials, the department announced that states must once again issue standardized tests and report results to gauge student progress. The move to reinstate testing comes after states, including California, New Jersey, New York, Illinois, Michigan and Georgia, have discussed cancelling standardized testing altogether this spring, citing concerns about testing students during remote and virtual learning.

However, department officials argue in the memo that state assessments and accountability systems “play an important role in advancing educational equity, identifying student needs, and targeting the resources to address them.”

The department waived testing requirements in March 2020 in response to school closures and concerns about how the lack of in-person instructional time could make it difficult to assess students. To mitigate concerns, federal education officials will allow states a degree of flexibility in how they administer the tests, including extending the testing window to the summer and fall, giving remote tests or shortening the assessment. States can also request waivers to exempt schools from the current 95 percent participation requirement. 

"The Department of Education is committed to supporting all states in assessing student learning during the pandemic to help target resources and support to the students with the greatest needs," Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in a statement. "We also recognize that at a time when everything in our education system is different, there need to be different ways that states can administer state tests like moving them to the fall so that precious in-person learning time this year can be spent on instruction. Balancing these priorities is the best approach."

Proponents of standardized testing believe it's the best way to measure student growth, while critics have denounced accountability measures that penalize schools with poor performance and negatively affect funding for “failing schools.” Critics also believe administering and planning for standardized testing cuts into valuable instructional time in schools. 

Education policy organizations and teachers' unions have expressed displeasure with the move to resume testing. Some states are still pushing for federal waivers altogether.

The California Teachers Association (CTA) submitted a letter to the State Board of Education, urging the California Department of Education to submit a waiver requesting the U.S. Department of Education to suspend standardized testing for the 2020-21 school year. Shortly after the federal memo was released, the association sent a letter to Acting U.S. Secretary of Education Phil Rosenfelt, joining other states asking federal education officials to issue assessment waivers to states as soon as possible.

“Given widespread inequities in student access to technology and the Internet, as well as the concerns both educators and parents have about the value of any data gathered from traditional annual testing in the midst of a global pandemic, we firmly believe testing would be detrimental to students, and of little use to teachers and school districts. These factors lead us to urge policymakers to instead focus on providing support to students in distance learning and their safe return to physical classrooms instead of on assessments of little value,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a CTA news release.