School districts looking to receive federal funding must administer standardized tests this year. The Biden administration has announced that officials can give shorter versions of statewide assessments, extend testing windows to accommodate social distancing and hybrid learning, or test students remotely. (Courtesy Photo)

By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO

The Biden Administration is not letting schools off the hook this year when it comes to standardized testing. 

In an unprecedented move, then Secretary of Education Betsy Devos cancelled standardized testing for school districts nationwide last Spring due to the coronavirus pandemic. This year, officials have given schools across the country a variety of options when it comes to state assessments, but the message is clear: standardized testing must resume.

“To be successful once schools have reopened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need,” said Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of Education, Ian Rosenblum, in a letter to chief state school officers. 

“We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic.” 

Rosenblum wrote that the student learning data gleaned from the assessments will “enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs.”

According to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), signed in 2015 during the Obama administration, K-12 public schools are required to administer standardized tests in reading and math on an annual basis to students between 3rd and 8th grades. High school students are required to test at least once, and a waiver can be given to schools looking to substitute the SAT or ACT for an annual state exam. 

ESSA also requires that students be given a standardized test in science at least once between third and fifth grade, once between the sixth and ninth grades, and at least once between the sophomore and senior year of high school. 

Though states have been ordered to administer their standardized tests, they will have flexibility in how the task is completed this year. 

According to Rosenblum’s letter, school districts can give shortened versions of statewide assessments or extend testing windows to accommodate social distancing and hybrid learning. In Florida, schools will use a longer testing window this Spring to ensure that all students can rotate through the building and test in-person. 

While many educators were not happy with the mandate to resume testing, a sigh of relief was heard nationwide when the Biden administration also stated they were willing to waive the accountability measures that meter out consequences according to standardized testing results. 

Schools will not be penalized for testing less than 95 percent of their student population and guidance from the U.S. Department of Education encourages school districts to “further reduce the stakes of assessments this year, such as excluding their use from students’ final grades and grade promotion decisions.” 

Districts across the country have also been given the option to administer their assessments remotely or even push their tests back to the beginning of next school year. New Jersey has announced that their students will have the option to take their statewide assessments from home or another location using TestNav, the same platform used for students attending in-person classes. 

The Maryland State Board of Education held a special meeting this month to announce the delay of standardized testing for students across all districts until Fall 2021. The announcement was a direct reversal of an earlier decision to have students sit for math and literacy tests this Spring, and came just one day after members of the Anne Arundel County Board of Education publicly disagreed. 

Candace C. W. Antwine, one of the eight board members for Anne Arundel County’s Board of Education, signed off on the letter and recently spoke with the AFRO about her decision.

“I believed the results would be skewed and would not coincide with our students’ success. They have been through so much. To bring them back and make them test on top of everything else- I, personally, disagreed,” she said.

Antwine added that “even without the disruption, there are circumstances that make it harder for our students of color to academically achieve in comparison to others.” 

“Those circumstances were even more exposed and in some cases worsened because of the pandemic. As a board member, my job is not to be naive about these things.” 

National Education Association Executive Director Kim Anderson weighed in on the Biden administration’s recent decision to forge ahead with testing during the pandemic.

“We know that we’ve got to recover smartly and strategically and in a way that is consistent with best practices and what is best for students,” said Anderson. “We know we need to assess where students are, but we also need to pay just as much attention to the trauma that students have experienced- whether it be through the loss of loved ones or trauma related to housing insecurity, food insecurity, homelessness, abuse or neglect.” 

Anderson said that she will not second-guess decisions made by state departments of education during the pandemic, but she does have serious concerns. 

“As school buildings begin to reopen, standardized testing will take away much needed instructional time to actually teach students and no single standardized test can ever adequately take into account all that a student has learned.” 

“Educators are assessing students every day and each week,” said Anderson. “They do formative assessments, diagnostic assessments, and interim assessments. Our students do not suffer from a lack of being assessed on where they are.” 

Anderson said that digital divides during the pandemic and a host of other barriers have plagued efforts to equalize the playing field for American students.

“Certainly we know that COVID-19 has disrupted opportunities for many students to learn in the same way,” Anderson told the AFRO. “This pandemic has laid bare all of the various racial, economic, and social inequities that have existed not just in our education system but in our economic system, our housing system, healthcare, and even the democracy itself.” 

According to the U.S. Department of Education, the challenges of the last year should be openly reported by each state to improve learning experiences for students. 

“Transparency on opportunity to learn measures, such as chronic absenteeism and access to key resources like technology, can help inform decisions about student supports for the 2021-2022 school year and beyond.”

Alexis Taylor

AFRO Staff Writer