And the Tests Must Go On

Kevin Casey, SAANYS Executive Director
March 2021 News & Notes

Before the Biden Administration was even able to confirm a Secretary of Education, it made its first high profile, and controversial, education-related decision in requiring states to administer state examinations despite the ongoing pandemic. This was done as several high population states (California, New York, Illinois, Michigan, Georgia, and New Jersey, among them) had formally sought a waiver from this year’s testing requirements or indicated that they planned to do so. SAANYS, among other state education organizations, expressly supported the waiver application that NYSED submitted to the USDE.

Proponents of conducting state exams generally point to the need to assess learning loss during the pandemic and/or conducting state examinations as a means of at least attempting to track equity differences in education by purposefully tracking progress (as defined by a test result) in all students, with special attention to those in high needs districts. Our support of the NYSED’s waiver application makes clear that we do not agree with the proponents of conducting the state exams this year. I will take this opportunity however, to state that those proponents motivated by movement toward educational equity and/or identifying learning loss as a first step in reversing it, as opposed to those who use test scores as a cudgel against public education, are not without valid motives. The question however, is whether or not the tests are appropriate tools to achieve those goals.

The efficacy of standardized tests has been a subject of bitter debate throughout the country in recent years. The uncomfortable truth is that while the tests were standardized, curricula and instruction were not. While the testes were standardized, the individual student’s nutrition, safety, and level of parental involvement were not. The tests were standard but the resources available to schools, staff, and students were not. And that was all pre-pandemic. During the ongoing pandemic, curriculum and instruction has become far less standard, even within an individual classroom. Attendance itself has suffered, as children fail to sign in online, or sign in and get distracted at home or lose a signal. The USDE, in its decision to require the state tests, now allows for varied times of administration, remote administration, and shortening the exams. In other words, the standardized tests themselves became non-standard.

I don’t think any educator would deny that there has been learning loss for many students, or that we should not attempt to identify and rectify it. Its extent will vary widely even among children in the same class, whether taken in-person, hybrid, or remotely (a non-standard pandemic imposed environment). Equally important is the extent of adverse social emotional impact on students, an impact which cannot be measured by a standardized test, but perhaps made worse by one.

Test administration in the best of times is a burdensome process. In a pandemic, distancing, staffing, and hygiene requirements complicate matters. So does remote administration, currently allowed by USDE, but at least right now not by New York State. The time dedicated to administering the exams (preparing, conducting, grading) costs staff time and perhaps most importantly, results in the loss of instructional time, ironically making learning loss more likely. For what, a number of dubious value?

Teachers, administrators, and superintendents are professional educators. They know their students. They are educated, experienced professionals from whom we rightly expect the exercise of professional judgment every day. Allow them to determine locally how to assess learning loss and create a process to make up for it. I honestly fail to see how requiring the administration of standardized exams will aid in that process. I expect student participation to be low, perhaps injecting new life into what has recently been a declining opt-out rate.

Since the decision to conduct the state exams was made a couple of days ago, I have not spoken to a single SAANYS member in favor of it. I have spoken to several opposed. They will, of course, follow the dictates in what is to become another exercise in compliance. They will endure, and try to absorb the increased stress this will impose upon the entire school community, like they have been doing for the past year. I think we would all be better served deferring to the judgment of those on the ground having dealt with pandemic conditions since last March. We should acknowledge the value of experience.