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Making the case for standardized school tests, even during a pandemic

Scrap the high stakes but don’t let school districts go two years without important data on student performance.

An empty classroom at Dr. Martin Luther King, Junior Academy of Social Justice in Englewood.
Schools are closed and classrooms are empty, but the pandemic is not a reason to cancel standardized tests that provide much-needed data on student performance.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

To test or not to test during a pandemic?

School districts in Illinois and across the country are waiting to learn whether states will be allowed to request waivers from federally mandated standardized tests next spring because of COVID-19.

Waivers, to our thinking, would be the wrong move. The next U.S. secretary of education, in the incoming Biden administration, should say no to the idea, something a handful of states already have done.

We understand the arguments against administering standardized tests as usual during a year that has been anything but usual. The essence of the criticism, principally made by national teachers unions and anti-testing advocates, is that it would be a logistics nightmare for schools to test students in-person during a public health crisis.

And given the well-documented shortcomings of remote learning, a severe lack of actual learning likely would be revealed in plummeting — and perhaps unreliable — test scores.

“The vast majority of parents and teachers think it’s ridiculous to believe that you can get meaningful results from a standardized test in the middle of a pandemic,” as Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a national organization that has raised questions in general about high-stakes testing, told Politico recently.

But a fear of plummeting scores and logistics problems are no reason to bury our heads in the sand. No one who cares about providing the best education possible for kids should shrug their shoulders and say “Why bother? We already know the scores will be bad.”

Outgoing Education Secretary Betsy DeVos allowed waivers — federal requirements for standardized tests were suspended — last school year when the pandemic first hit and threw schools into chaos. But one year without crucial data on student performance, as limited in usefulness as it may be, is enough.

“We cannot improve what we do not measure,” a coalition of leading civil rights groups and education organizations — including the National Urban League and the National Center for Learning Disabilities — wrote in a Nov. 20 letter to the Department of Education, making the case against testing waivers. “[A]nd if we do not measure the opportunity gaps being exacerbated during COVID-19, we risk losing a generation of young people.”

The risk is highest for children of color, who are most likely not to have sufficient access to the technology necessary for remote learning or are disengaged from the process altogether, the letter noted.

If ever there were a school year when teachers, policymakers and parents need as much data as they can get to fully understand what is going on with education for the next generation, this is the year. COVID-19 has upended learning from preschool through high school, and the sooner every stakeholder is apprised of the full impact on children, the better.

But there’s a caveat. One that goes to fairness. Schools should carry on with testing, yes, but scrap the high-stakes consequences. No school should be given a lower performance rating or threatened with being shut down because of low scores by students struggling to learn online. No teacher should be given a poor evaluation based on this data. Even the best of teachers are struggling mightily to teach in a new medium, with little training.

A handful of states already are going this route. Tennessee, Florida, Virginia and California will administer their traditional exams, but without the threat of sanctions against schools or teachers.

Illinois is leaning in that direction, though the state Board of Education has yet to decide the testing issue. Meanwhile, education advocates told board members at a recent meeting that data from the assessments would show where the state needs to target its scarce resources to help students recover learning loss caused by COVID-19.

It’s a chance to take a hard look at the long-standing inequities in public education and put an end to them.

“We don’t have co-curricular activities to augment the learning environment. Art, choir, sports, student newspapers — all these things have been reduced. Our kids don’t get a full curriculum,” Stacy Davis Gates of the Chicago Teachers Union told us recently. “How we think of funding our schools has got to be changed.”

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