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Put down your pencils

Pandemic continues to disrupt k-12 standardized tests


iStock.com/Tevarak

Put down your pencils

This spring, Georgia parent Abby Norman said she found her third-grade daughter crying in her bedroom over the stress of an upcoming standardized test. The 9-year-old had recently returned to the classroom after remote learning and said she didn’t feel prepared. Norman gave her daughter permission to fail it. “I literally ended up telling her, ‘If you want to lick the test and give it back, I don’t care,’” she told the Associated Press. With the pressure removed, her daughter aced the test, Norman said.

Remote learning complicated standardized testing this spring. Testing proponents say results help schools know where students need extra help, and the Department of Education in February declined to cancel federal test mandates for this year. But waivers, unusual logistics, and parents opting out has caused fewer students to take the assessments, and experts worry that will make the results hard to interpret.

Standardized testing opponents have long argued that the yearly assessments waste classroom hours, stress kids, and force teachers to cater to the test contents rather than student needs. With this year’s added disruptions, critics say schools already know students are behind and should use test time for more instruction.

The Department of Education disagreed. It urged states not to use this year’s data to rank schools, but refused to grant a blanket waiver like it did last spring. Though he said online students shouldn’t have to come in person just for testing, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona told lawmakers during his confirmation hearing, “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.”

Despite that, some states and districts have significantly pared back testing. Usually the Education Department docks funding if states test fewer than 95 percent of students, but it gave Arizona, New Mexico, California permission to miss that benchmark without consequences. In early May, fewer than 1 percent of students in New Mexico’s largest district, Albuquerque, planned to take the tests, according to KOB-TV. Indiana also got the waiver but still tested 97 percent of students. The department allowed Washington, D.C., to skip testing all of its 51,000 students because most are still learning online. Colorado cut science tests for all but eighth graders, dropped the social science section, and cut back on other parts of the test. Los Angeles, the nation’s second largest school district, required only high school juniors to take the state test, using more informal assessments for all other k-12 students.

Online school also makes it easier for parents to opt out altogether. It’s not clear yet how many have done so, and a National PTA poll in February found about half of parents were in favor of testing this year, with another quarter neutral. But there’s some evidence that concern about children’s mental health and COVID-19 safety has increased opt outs. One North Carolina parent who decided to skip tests this year to protect her child’s mental health told the Wilmington Star News that dozens of families had contacted her about doing the same. A Facebook group opposed to in-person tests for health reasons quickly grew to more than 1,000 members, The Texas Tribune reported. Texas only offered tests in-person, missing any students who remained online.

All this disruption means educators will get less comprehensive data than in previous years. Evan Stone, founder of education policy advocacy group Educators for Excellence, pointed out that testing fewer students makes it harder for states and school districts to get a representative sample. “The trouble with students opting out of standardized tests is that those who choose to participate in testing are often very different from those who opt out,” Stone wrote in an email. Unpredictable gaps can skew the data, blurring the picture for teachers trying to help their students catch up, he said: “It makes instructional planning that much harder during an already challenging time.”

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