One month after taking office, the Biden administration faced its first major education policy test. It failed miserably.
Despite a campaign promise to end standardized testing in public schools (See “Biden’s Broken Promise: Time to Opt Out!” by Denisha Jones), on Feb. 22 administration officials declared it would not grant “blanket waivers of assessments” for the current school year despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The announcement drew immediate grassroots protest that clogged U.S. Education Department (ED) phone lines and ensured that students returning to classrooms after a year of trauma and chaos would face hours of useless standardized tests mandated by the federal government.
The decision also set in motion a state-by-state battle around testing that is now underway, and reopened fault lines in the Democratic Party over education policy that were papered over during the campaign against Trump.
One year ago, as the pandemic swept the country, then-Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos granted testing waivers to all 50 states. The move instantly underscored the educational irrelevance of the tests and their existence as an obstacle to serving the real needs of students.
As Biden pushed to reopen schools during his first 100 days, pressure built for a renewal of the testing waivers. A growing number of states including New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, South Carolina, and Georgia announced plans to seek them while the education world awaited confirmation of Miguel Cardona, the Connecticut state superintendent Biden nominated for education secretary.
But just days before Cardona’s confirmation, Acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum released a letter declaring that all states would be required to give the tests mandated by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act (also known as the “Every Student Succeeds Act”). Rosenblum came to Biden’s education policy team directly from Education Trust, the pro-testing corporate reform lobby that until late April was led by John King, a longtime, pro-testing proponent who succeeded Arne Duncan as secretary of education in the Obama Administration.
For months, pro-testing corporate reformers had worked to head off calls for another round of testing waivers. Mass standardized testing is the engine of corporate education reform and its supporters feared a second year without scores could permanently weaken the testing machine. Last fall, DeVos preemptively announced there would be no more testing waivers if Trump were re-elected. At the same time, the Center for American Progress, a Democratic think tank that helped promote the Obama/Duncan version of test-driven corporate reform (including Common Core standards, harder tests, and test-based teacher evaluation) issued a report insisting that “Maintaining the federal annual testing requirements is a matter of equity in education.”
Democratic Party support for tests, charters, and school privatization became a polarizing issue during the presidential primary campaign. In the wake of the “Red for Ed” walkouts of 2018–19, some candidates, including Biden, replaced rhetoric about “education reform” with pledges to increase school funding and boost teacher pay.
Once Biden secured the nomination, a Biden-Sanders unity task force went further, declaring:
Democrats will work to end the use of such high-stakes tests and encourage states to develop evidence-based approaches to student assessment that rely on multiple and holistic measures that better represent student achievement.
But many centrist Democrats, particularly “inside the Beltway,” remain committed to the test-driven reform agenda. They include Sen. Patty Murray (Washington) and Rep. Bobby Scott (Virginia) who chair the Senate and House education committees. “Statewide assessments are important to identify what extra support schools need to help their students get back on track,” said Murray and Scott in a joint statement. News and other reports indicated that Murray and Scott, along with Ed Trust, helped engineer the “no waivers” announcement.
Advocates and activists pushed back. Leaders of United Opt Out National promised that if U.S. ED didn’t cancel the tests, parents would. Newly elected Congressman Jamaal Bowman, an educator and former public school principal, organized a congressional effort to reverse the decision, which he described as the “misguided result of decisions over the past 20 years,” adding “we need a paradigm shift” in the Democratic Party around education policy.
Cardona’s Wrong Answers
For a while, advocates held out hope that Cardona would modify or revoke the policy. More than 70 organizations and 10,000 individuals signed petitions asking him to cancel the tests. Hundreds of deans from college education departments asked U.S. ED to waive the requirement. More than 500 prominent education researchers detailed the futility of gathering standardized test data — unreliable and deeply flawed in normal years — in the midst of profoundly disruptive and unequal pandemic conditions.
But Cardona doubled down, telling the Council of Chief State School Officers, “This is not the year for a referendum on assessments.” This intransigence not only squandered some of the goodwill that greeted the appointment of an educator to replace DeVos, but also has generated increasingly dubious responses that undermine one of the new secretary’s primary tasks: building trust with school communities in the middle of the worst public health crisis in modern history.
For example, at his confirmation hearing, Cardona said, “We do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test.”
Yet at the time Rosenblum’s letter was issued, the New York Times reported “Only 4 percent of the nation’s schoolchildren live in counties where coronavirus transmission is low enough for full-time in-person learning without additional restrictions, according to the guidelines established by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and an analysis of the agency’s latest figures.” Subsequently, CDC changed those guidelines, seemingly more in response to pressure to reopen than settled science.
Similarly, U.S. ED has stressed “flexibility” about relaxing certain punitive “accountability” uses of the scores. But it still requires that districts publicly report them and has ignored the fact that it’s the implementation of the tests, not just punitive uses of the scores, that constitutes the harm. Standardized testing militarizes school climate, alienates students when they especially need social-emotional support, and steals time from learning. As one person posted on Twitter, “Learning loss is when you spend a month prepping for standardized tests during a pandemic.”
Cardona has also repeated baseless claims that the tests are needed to direct aid to where it’s most urgently needed. “Let me tell you very clearly that when we’re pushing out $130 billion, that state level data . . . is going to ensure that we’re providing the funds to those students that have been impacted the most by the pandemic.”
This is both misleading and irrelevant to the issue of testing waivers. Federal education aid, including the nearly $130 billion in COVID-19 relief funds for school districts in the American Rescue Plan (ARP), is distributed on the basis of federal formulas about the number of low income children, not test scores. Canceling standardized tests this spring would have no impact on the distribution of Title I funds or on ARP allocations.
The oft-repeated fiction that “we need to test so we can target resources” is also contradicted by the long history of school funding cases that invariably use test scores to document the existence of educational inequality. There have been such cases in 48 of the 50 states. Yet two-thirds of states still maintain school funding systems that fail to deliver greater resources to schools with greater need. The massive increase in standardized testing in recent decades has done little to change these structural inequities.
In the absence of “blanket waivers,” states sought to stretch the boundaries of U.S. ED’s “flexibility” promises in their individual waiver applications. Some states (e.g., Washington and New Mexico) sought to use “sampling” that avoids testing every student in grades 3–8. Others (Colorado) plan to automatically exempt students on remote instruction and have students take one English language arts or math test instead of both. Still others sought to shorten their tests or push them into the fall (New York and Pennsylvania). Some proposed using a combination of local assessments and other data collection in place of the usual state test.
But the ED’s responses were an incoherent mix of rejections, evasions, and bad judgments. Washington, D.C., where nearly 90 percent of students were still on remote instruction, was the only jurisdiction granted a full waiver to cancel the tests. Michigan, where coronavirus rates were surging, and districts that had reopened were closing again, was denied similar relief. Applications to cancel the tests from Washington and Oregon in the Northwest to Georgia and South Carolina in the Southeast were all denied. New Jersey and California were told they “didn’t need waivers” even though they were only planning scaled-down versions of their state tests and a mix of local assessments. The common thread seemed to be an effort to maintain the fiction that “summative state assessments” were uniquely “valuable” and to maintain the appearance of compliance with ESSA’s testing mandate. It’s a patchwork policy that will produce no useful data, but will preserve testing company contracts and produce grist for false, harmful, and racist “learning loss” narratives.
The absurdity of mandating testing in the middle of a pandemic will fuel the growth of the national test resistance movement. A few years ago, a robust opt-out movement helped break the back of the two federally funded consortia created to impose the Common Core tests. Once again it will take opposition and defiance in the face of federal testing mandates to create change.
Ultimately, the push for better federal assessment policy will have to come from below, from those who activist educator and Rethinking Schools editor Jesse Hagopian calls “testdefyers”: the parents who join the opt-out movement, students who refuse to take the tests, and educators who organize collectively to boycott or refuse to give them.
Chicago provides one example. Parents, teachers, and unions are jointly organizing sessions on how and why to opt out. “Most policymakers aren’t stepping up, but families can take matters into their own hands by having their children refuse state testing,” says a flyer from the Chicago Teachers Union, the Illinois Federation of Teachers, and Illinois Families for Public Schools.
As Rep. Bowman told a group of activists during one strategy session, the task is to “Tell them what we don’t want and build what we do want.”
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