Secretary DeVos, It’s Time to Scratch the 2020 State Tests

It’s time to waive the assessment requirements, everywhere and for everyone.
U.S. Secretery of Education Betsy DeVos.

Dear Secretary DeVos,

It’s time to scratch federally mandated state testing for 2020. All of it. All of the reading, math, and science testing mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act. Scratch it. Period.

Section 8401 of ESSA empowers the U.S. Secretary of Education to waive certain requirements. Madam Secretary, it’s time for you to waive the assessment requirements, everywhere and for everyone. If the lawyers quibble, you should forcefully urge Congress to act.

I don’t say this lightly. These state tests are valuable for providing both transparency and some baseline accountability. But that’s not a good enough reason enough to go forward with the tests this year amidst the coronavirus chaos and a fast-moving national shutdown.

The best reason to scratch the tests? Complying with federal guidelines regarding mandated assessments is the very last thing educational leaders should be thinking about right now. They should be focused on the safety of students, educators, and communities; developing alternative instruction; supporting parents; feeding and aiding kids in need; and thinking about what it’ll take to reopen schools.

At this juncture, not an ounce of time or energy should be lost to planning how to administer tests or manage testing windows—much less to the impact of the outcomes on performance metrics. And let’s not kid ourselves, educational leaders’ livelihoods are linked to these scores. They’ll feel pressed to worry about testing logistics and scores—even if that compromises more important things.

With the White House now urging all Americans to school kids from home, if possible, I hope the U.S. Department of Education responds with appropriate measures. As of today, the relevant Department fact sheet, (issued March 12) blandly observed that “the Department generally does not grant statewide waivers of assessment requirements” because “assessments provide important information to parents, educators, and the public about how well students are doing at mastering a State’s content for each tested grade and subject.”

That’s not the case this year. This spring, the data wouldn’t be worth the pixels required to display them. Schools serving half of the nation’s students have closed. Plenty more are likely to be shuttered over the next week or two—and there’s no telling when they might reopen. In the meantime, some students will be getting instruction online, some will be getting parental instruction, some will be getting tutoring, and others will be on their own.

Indeed, even the Department’s hints of accommodation to this point are massively inadequate. The Department’s advisory has grudgingly conceded only that the “unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window” would only prompt it to “consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances.” This reads like a parody. Shuttered school systems are scrambling to provide meals and get instruction online, and education leaders are being directed to spend time assembling, one-by-one, 100,000 or more files with enough documentation to assure nameless federal officials that circumstances are “extraordinary” enough to merit a “targeted one-year waiver”?

The truth is, at this point, it would be nearly impossible to administer more than a handful of state assessments in a consistent or coherent manner. The logistical hurdles of figuring how to get all kids tested, how to configure testing windows, and how to rearrange testing schedules would require enormous time and energy—time and energy that should be spent on much more important things.

And keep in mind that these annual tests aren’t actually of much use for instruction; heck, results aren’t usually even available until the following academic year. They’re mostly good for system management, academic research, accountability systems, and public consumption—not helping teachers better educate current students. Normally, that’s a defensible trade-off; this year, not so much. The data’s value is usually that its broadly consistent and comparable. Well, the 2020 data won’t be. No one should want states or districts plugging erratic, dubious data into accountability systems or public report cards. If that creates headaches for scorecards, accountability systems, or researchers, so be it.

A final consideration: In far too many classrooms, instruction grinds to a halt once the state test has been taken. This year—if students end up back in classrooms at all—there’s no room for that. The days consumed by testing and the slow days that follow will need to be redirected to instruction if we hope to make up for even some of the time and opportunity that kids will have lost.

If you’re concerned about a dearth of important information on how schools are doing, I’m with you. While I’m no testing aficionado, I actively defended ESSA’s testing requirements before and after the law’s passage. But we already have the 2019 results, and we’ll eventually have the 2021 results. That’s enough. After all, we only give the National Assessment of Educational Progress reading and math tests every other year. If you suggest that, in lieu of state tests, school systems should ramp up diagnostic assessment so as to better support learners—that’d be smart. As for research, you should absolutely encourage researchers, funders, and IES to step up and dig in. But this spring is not the time to have state and district leaders worrying about tests and testing schedules.

Secretary DeVos, it’s time to scratch the 2020 tests.

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared in Rick Hess Straight Up.

Read more from Education Next on coronavirus and Covid-19.

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