NY schools must give standardized tests, say feds

Sophie Grosserode & Gary Stern, Gannett John Christensen, The Chronicle-Express

YATES COUNTY – The U.S. Department of Education ruled last week that states must administer standardized tests this year, but the tests can be shortened and will not be used to evaluate schools.

“While we are disappointed by this decision, we are examining all possible options,” Emily DeSantis, spokesperson for the N.Y. State Department of Education said in a statement Tuesday. 

Local educators, many of whom spoke out in favor of canceling testing this year, are now waiting to hear from the state about how assessments will proceed — and how much time and money it will cost them.

"I am disappointed in the decision being made to move forward with the traditional assessment process under non-traditional times and circumstances," said Howard Dennis, Superintendent of Penn Yan Central School. "I have seen the justification and disagree that administering the test differently from the plan will give us reliable data.  Allowing assessments to be shortened, adjusted, or modified will not give us verifiable, standardized data.  I am fully confident that the Teachers and staff of our District are doing everything humanly possible and a little more to get our students as close to the State Benchmark requirements as possible if not further.   This will cause further disruption to an already disrupted year. We will wait to hear further guidance from the State level about plans for the next steps." 

Dr. Christopher Brown, Superintendent of Marcus Whitman Central School, said, “As a lifelong, child centered educator, this news hurt my heart.  Not because I don’t think students should be assessed, but we are now adding one more thing to children and teachers who are already experiencing anxiety and other mental health related issues.  There is no time to shorten the tests, and giving them next year is too late.  We will put the students and teachers through this, the results will be low and unreliable, and they won’t matter toward the 'score' of the school or the teacher. Sounds like a fun time for all.”

Kelly Houck, Superintendent of Dundee Central School, stated, "It is disappointing to say the least regarding the announcement that required standardized assessments will not be waived for the 20-21 school year. These are standardized tests and there has been absolutely nothing standardized surrounding school operations in over a year. It is unfortunate that time and resources will need to be allocated to the administration of these assessments when all of our focus should be allowed to be given toward addressing our student's needs and providing all of our resources to addressing the learning and achievement gaps that so many of our students are experiencing due to lengthy school closures and the disruptions caused by operating schools during a pandemic. We are very fortunate that in Dundee school has been able to be operational five days a week for all students since reopening in September, however, the significance of school closures cannot be discounted or remedied without time, time that we could have used that will not be allocated to standardized tests."

New York was among several states that had requested federal permission from the Biden administration to cancel standardized testing for the 2020-21 school year. The move had strong public support and was backed by key education groups like New York State United Teachers and The Council of School Superintendents.

Now New York must fulfill the federal requirement to test students in grades 3-8 in ELA and math. Those assessments are currently scheduled to begin in April. 

The state also must fulfill the federal requirement to test high school students in ELA, math and science. Because of that requirement, New York cannot cancel its signature Regents exams outright. But the state plans to cancel other Regents that are not required. And DeSantis said that Regents exams that are administered will not be needed to meet graduation requirements.

The federal government will allow flexibility in how tests are administered. States could give abbreviated versions of their tests, offer tests remotely and extend testing, even into the summer or next school year.

Members of the state Board of Regents have said that they do not believe assessments could be administered remotely this year. The flexibility offered by the federal government appeared to do little Tuesday to soothe those who believe the tests shouldn't be given.

“In a year that has been anything but standard, mandating that students take standardized tests just doesn’t make sense,” NYSUT President Andy Pallotta stated. “We need to ensure that our students who have been hit hardest during the pandemic receive the support they need,” he said. “Sizing up students with inequitable and stressful exams is not the solution.”

New York also sought a waiver from federal requirements that states identify schools that need improvement based on the test scores of groups of students. The U.S. Department of Education indicated those waivers would be granted.

This is one of the first major education policy decisions made by the Biden administration. It is consistent with the position of the Trump administration under former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who said last year that states should not expect waivers from testing.

Monday's letter from the U.S. Department of Education informing schools of these decisions was signed by Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary in the Office of Elementary and Secondary Education. (Biden's choice for education secretary, former Connecticut Education Commissioner Miguel Cardona, has not yet been confirmed.) Before his appointment to the Biden administration, Rosenblum was executive director of The Education Trust-New York, an advocacy organization that strongly supports standardized testing as a tool to advance educational equity.

The Education Trust-New York was part of a coalition of education, business and civil rights groups that released a statement Feb. 2 calling on the state to administer the 3-8 tests, even if they would have to be remote, shortened, and later in the spring than normal.

'The disruption isn't over'

The federal government’s main argument for holding the assessments is that they are necessary to understand the impact of the pandemic on student learning. 

“I can appreciate the people who say administering the assessments will give us systematic data [to understand] the effects of disruption,” said Bob Lowry, deputy director for advocacy, research & communications of the New York State Council of School Superintendents. 

“But the problem we foresee is that the disruption isn't over, and this would add to it,” Lowry said. He said it would seem impossible for the state to quickly shorten or revise its assessments, he said.

Other educators have argued for months that administering tests would eat up precious instructional time and resources for little gain, and would put undue stress on children and teachers.

“It's just a flat-out bad decision,” said Joseph Ricca, White Plains superintendent and president of the Lower Hudson Council of School Superintendents. “Clearly, the voices of educators and parents were not sitting center in that policy decision.” Testing won't help get children back in school full time, Ricca said. He anticipates a large number of families opting out of the tests.

“This is an antiquated thing we're holding onto,” Ricca said. “[School districts] are very capable of assessing student learning and student growth, and then applying that in real time to lessons… teachers are assessing their kids every day. Nobody in this conversation is against assessment.”