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NEA Urges States to Use New Flexibility to Focus on Students, Not Testing

High-stakes standardized tests administered during a global health crisis should not determine a student’s future, evaluate educators, or punish schools.
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Published: 02/25/2021

Key Takeaways

  1. The Department of Education issued new guidelines on assessments this week, instructing states to administer standardized tests but including flexibility on how and when to carry them out.
  2. NEA President Becky Pringle said standardized test were unreliable before COVID and would be even more so after a year of unprecedented upheaval.
  3. Educators across the country will be mobilizing to work with lawmakers in their states to use the flexibility in the guidelines to best serve their students.

Last April, after COVID-19 forced schools across the nation to close their doors, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) permitted all 50 states to skip statewide student testing. Still in the throes of probably the most challenging school year of their lives and with testing season fast approaching, most educators, students and their families have been waiting for the ED to come back again this year with another “blanket waiver.” 

Never a fair and reliable indicator of student achievement in the past, high-stakes standardized tests, after a year of unprecedented upheaval, are the last thing students—particularly those hardest hit during the pandemic—need to recover and move forward.

The announcement on Monday, however, suggested ED officials disagree.

In a letter to chief state education officers from Acting Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum, the department announced it is mandating schools administer some form of statewide assessment as required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). “To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” Rosenblum wrote.

At the same time, however, the ED is offering individual states flexibility in how and when they carry out these assessments. 

“It is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development,” Rosenblum wrote.

Specifically, under the ED guidance, states can apply to shorten exams, administer them remotely, and delay testing windows until the summer or fall of 2021. For states that apply for a reprieve from accountability requirements, test results will not be used to produce federally required rankings or punish struggling schools.

'Unfathomable'

In response to the new guidance, NEA President Becky Pringle urged every state to apply for the maximum flexibility, for the sake of their students. 

“We hope every state will submit a request to suspend high stakes school rankings and potentially harmful sanctions," Pringle said Monday. “High-stakes standardized tests administered during the global health crisis should not determine a student’s future, evaluate educators, or punish schools; nor should they come at the expense of precious learning time that students could be spending with their educators.”

For the nation’s educators, the idea that students would be forced to sit down this year and take any sort of standardized test—on site or remotely—is incomprehensible.

“We’re only now getting to a place where our districts can begin looking at in-person learning again,” said Colorado Education Association (CEA) President Amie Baca-Oehlert. “Educators here can’t even process the thought of taking up to 6 to 8 weeks of instruction time to administer a statewide assessment that is not going to give us data and information that we don’t already know.”

These assessments can also exacerbate the debilitating stress and trauma students have suffered over the past year. 

Baca-Oehlert recounted what one CEA member learned when she reached out to a student who had been absent from classes. The student explained that their parent had just died from COVID-19 and the student was now trying to take care of younger siblings at home.

“This was a 13-year-old middle school student. When we think about what our students have been experiencing this year,” Baca-Oehlert said, "the thought of adding to their trauma with a statewide assessment is just right now just unfathomable.”

Educators Know Students Best

Intensifying instruction and support for these students traumatized by the impact of the coronavirus—most prevalent in Black, brown, rural, and Indigenous communities—should be the overriding priority of policymakers right now, said Pringle.

And any important decision about student learning that is based on faulty, punitive testing regimes and without educator input is likely to fail. “All students deserve and have the ability to demonstrate knowledge in many ways that are measurable by those who know them best—their educators," she added.

Educators here can’t even process the thought of taking up to 6 to 8 weeks of instruction time to administer a statewide assessment that is not going to give us data and information that we don’t already know. They want to focus on instruction. And that's what parents are telling us they want. - Amie Baca-Oehlert, Colorado Education Association.

It is critical that states use the flexibility in the new ED guidance on assessments—and educator expertise—to design more accurate measures of assessment that will actually support the academic, social and emotional needs of their students, she urged.

Data Already Exists

Colorado educators were already gearing up this spring to support a bill in the state legislature that, if approved, would have directed the state to request a full testing waiver from the Department of Education. The guidelines issued Monday changed the equation, but still present an opportunity to address and understand student learning without forcing them to sit down for the Colorado Measures of Academic Success (CMAS).

“While the federal guidance was not as helpful nor as applicable to Colorado as we had hoped, they did provide some clarity on how to frame our waiver request. They want to see local assessment data and we can provide that in our bill,” co-sponsor Rachel Zenzinger wrote in a Facebook post.

To meet the flexibility guidelines outlined in the guidance, lawmakers are amending the bill to provide currently available testing data that they believe will adhere to the DOE’s mandate. 

“We already have actionable, timely and meaningful data that is telling us where are students are, what they are learning and where there are gaps,” explains Baca-Oehlert. “We don't need to wait months and months for the results of a statewide assessment to find out how our students are doing and how we can drive the right resources to the schools and students who have the greatest needs.”

NEA provides guidance and resources for returning to classrooms safely, and with an emphasis on racial and social justice.
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