Don’t force schools to give standardized tests this pandemic year, research scholars ask Education Secretary Cardona

The Education Department announced in February — before Cardona was confirmed by the Senate — that public school districts had to administer exams in math and English Language Arts required annually by the federal 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, which replaced the 2002 No Child Left Behind law.

And as late as last week, Cardona said at an education forum that the department was planning to go ahead with its testing decision.

The high-stakes tests are given every spring as a central part of the two-decade-old school reform movement. Testing advocates say the exams provide vital data on how all student groups are performing in school. Student test scores are used — at least in part — by some states to evaluate teachers and by states to evaluate districts and schools.

The academics’ letter notes that critics of high-stakes testing have warned for decades that “the high-stakes use of any metric will distort results,” and that documented consequences include “curriculum narrowing, teaching-to-the-test, the ‘triaging’ of resources, and cheating.”

For the past two decades, it says, “experts have disproven the premise that meaningful school improvement can be driven by exposure to competitive markets and corporate-style performance management.”

“Declining states’ requests for waivers of standardized testing in 2021 will exacerbate inequality and will produce flawed data in the midst of the pandemic,” the letter says.

In spring 2020, then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said states did not have to administer the tests during the coronavirus pandemic, and some districts had asked the Biden administration to provide that same flexibility this year.

But a February letter from the Education Department to chief state schools officers said schools should not go two straight years without data and that the tests should be administered. Schools were given leeway to shorten the tests, administer them online or change the 2020 dates of administration.

The Education Department’s missive, signed by acting assistant education secretary for elementary and secondary education Ian Rosenblum, said that accountability systems based on test scores “play an important role in advancing educational equity.”

The new letter to Cardona from the academics takes a very different view about the need and consequences of giving the exams than does the Education Department.

“The damage inflicted by racialized poverty on children, communities, and schools is devastating and daunting,” it says. “To that end, we understand why some civil rights groups have advocated for systems that use standardized tests to highlight inequalities.

“Whatever their flaws,” the letter continues, “test-based accountability systems are intended to spotlight those inequalities and demand they be addressed. But standardized tests also have a long history of causing harm and denying opportunity to low-income students and students of color, and without immediate action they threaten to cause more harm now than ever.”

The letter was spearheaded by Jack Schneider of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell and three scholars from the University of Colorado at Boulder: Lorrie Shepard, Michelle Renée Valladares and Kevin Welner.

The other 544 signatories come from private and public institutions of higher education across the country.

Here’s the full letter with signatories:

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