When the world of K-12 education spiraled into confusion last spring, many teachers and students quietly delighted in the disappearance of high-stakes tests.
The multiple-choice questions and hours spent monitoring exams were suddenly gone. Schools pivoted to finding students and connecting everyone digitally. The Department of Education dropped the requirement for states to administer annual achievement exams in reading and math, which usually happens in spring.
“We’re living in a time we all dreamed about – there’s no standardized testing,” said Randal Lutz, superintendent of Baldwin-Whitehall schools, a district of about 4,700 students in suburban Pittsburgh.
“We told teachers: Go have fun with kids. Go teach the things you wanted to teach however you want to do it, within the state standards.”
But now those tests are coming back. President Joe Biden’s administration this week decided against another blanket waiver on federally mandated achievement exams this year, saying instead states can delay or shorten the tests, or give them virtually – or skip testing remote learners.
States can apply to duck out of holding schools accountable for the results, the federal guidance says.
Teachers, parents and education experts have mixed feelings about the return of the tests, particularly around who will and won't be tested and how the scores will be interpreted. Administering the exams only to glean information about student progress is a good middle ground, some say. Others believe it could lead to more money to support academic recovery efforts.
Still others believe testing students is needlessly stressful right now. They question the usefulness of any data that comes from statewide exams that can't capture the performance of all or most students around the same time and under the same conditions. And they'd prefer in-class time be used for instruction instead of testing.
"The challenge is we have additional variables this year," Lutz said.
"You can modify the tests, you can give them online, you can give them in fall instead of spring. Some schools will use accommodations and some won't, but when those results come out, we'll all still be compared to each other."
Most remote learners won't take the exams
Acknowledging the difficulty of remote learning, the new guidance waives the requirement for states to test at least 95% of students.
Schools operating remotely are not expected to bring students back in person for the sole purpose of giving exams, Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary of education said in a letter to state superintendents Monday.
Scott Norton, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, which represents school superintendents, said only about five states have signaled their intent to administer state exams to remote learners.
That means large numbers of remote learners will be left out of the testing pool.
Federal education law requires states to give standardized exams in subjects including reading and math to students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school, with consequences if participation falls below 95%. The law aims to capture an annual snapshot of how kids are doing and to identify low-performing schools. The process can trigger improvement efforts or other interventions, or sometimes just public scrutiny.
All states are likely to apply for waivers from the accountability requirements, experts say.
States will still be required to publicly share how each school's students performed at the state and local level, with breakdowns by race and income, the new guidance says.
But because states will likely test more in-person learners than remote learners, the results may reveal more about the performance of white and wealthier students, who are attending school in-person at higher rates than lower-income and minority students.
A handful of states – including New York and Michigan – requested or are planning to request individual federal approval to substitute different tests or skip all statewide testing again, according to the Council of Chief State School Officers.
Pennsylvania officials said they plan to postpone statewide exams until at least September – the beginning of next school year. More children are likely to be back in classrooms then.
Wisconsin plans to shorten its English, math and science tests by 70 to 80 minutes, officials said. And schools operating remotely will need to provide an in-person testing environment, if local health orders allow people to be in buildings.
In Massachusetts, Education Commissioner Jeffrey Riley has said state exams for elementary and middle-school students would be shorter this year. The state has not announced any details on the testing of remote versus in-person learners.
Some teachers praise testing, without consequences
The flexibility drew applause from Educators for Excellence, a nonprofit that gives teachers more of a say in education policy.
"Holding teachers and schools accountable for assessment results would have been a mistake, but not testing our students so that we can support their growth with data would be an even bigger mistake," Carlotta Pope, an 11th-grade English teacher in New York City, said in a statement.
The results of the exams could actually help drive more funding to schools, added Ethan Hutt, an education professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Schools could make a better case for summer school funding, for example, if they can show certain groups of students are struggling more than others, he said.
"We know that schools and districts have approached (schooling in the pandemic) with different levels of competence and technology," Hutt said. "If we want to direct policy and resources to schools that are particularly hard hit, we need more precise information about what's happening."
Tests create more stress and blame, critics say
David Ruff, executive director of the Great Schools Partnership, a school improvement non-profit in New England, said sharing exam results at all could perpetuate the "blame and shame" on schools that post low results.
Generally, the lowest-performing schools are those that serve the highest proportion of low-income and minority students. Testing critics worry that could add additional layers of stress for families and students, many of whom may already be struggling with the pressures of distance learning.
Standardized tests are designed to identify systemic problems and schools that aren't doing well, Ruff said.
"They're not designed to identify individual student learning loss," he added.
Debates over testing bubbled up in January, when a coalition of education and civil-rights groups called on the Biden administration to postpone or offer waivers for the language-proficiency assessments typically taken by students still learning English.
The language-proficiency test can't be administered remotely, and critics worried requiring students to test in-person could put their health at risk. The vast majority of English learners are people of color, communities that have been hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Biden administration didn't take a clear stance on those assessments in its new guidance, though it encouraged states to extend their testing windows so students can participate when it's safe for them to do so.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Standardized tests for virtual students? How will school funding fare?