Terry Falk
K-12 Education

The Fight Over Standardized Testing

MPS, urban school systems push federal government for testing waivers, citing lost instruction time during pandemic.

By - Apr 26th, 2021 02:00 pm
Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Milwaukee Public Schools Office of School Administration, 5225 W. Vliet St. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Public Schools.

Last Thursday, outgoing Milwaukee school board President Larry Miller and Vice-president Tony Baez stood before a single television camera in the chilly air before the Milwaukee school administration building to denounce, plea and demand that the federal mandated academic standardized tests be halted at least for this year. A day earlier, April 21, they issued a press release demanding the same. Even though this week’s school board meeting would be their last, these retiring school board members were not willing to sit back and do nothing.

The demand to stop the testing during the pandemic has been coming from other states across the country. In Wisconsin, the school superintendents of Milwaukee, Madison, Racine and Green Bay wrote to the Wisconsin Department of Instruction (DPI) and U.S. Department of Education (DOEd) asking for testing waivers for this school year.

The DPI letter was sent on February 4, 2021. A letter was sent to U.S. Acting Education Secretary Philip Rosenfelt on February 16 and another letter to now confirmed Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona on March 2.

In their letter to DPI, they wrote “While we agree it is important to assess the impact of COVID-19 on each student’s learning, we do not believe that this spring’s state test will provide us with the accurate and much needed information to address student learning loss. We also believe that it would be detrimental to our students if we wait for state test results to inform parents, school boards, and communities of student progress as we already know we need significant resources and everyone’s support.”

In a February 15 letter, DPI wrote back to Milwaukee Superintendent Keith P. Posley that its hands were tied. Without a federal waiver, there was nothing it could do. Wisconsin did ask for a more limited waiver from the federal government, asking permission to not do the following:

  • Measure the achievement of at least 95 percent of all students, and
  • Use test participation as a factor in calculating the achievement indicator in the state’s schools and districts.

Wisconsin’s limited waiver request was based upon the denial by DOEd of blanket waivers to all requesting states across the country, which also noted the federal department might consider a more limited waiver along the lines Wisconsin was asking.

But as March 2021 was ending, DOEd granted a full waiver from student testing to the District of Columbia school system.

In an April 6 letter, DOEd wrote that DC had a unique situation: “the vast majority of students in the District of Columbia (88 percent) are receiving full-time distance learning as of March 20, 2021, and most students receiving hybrid instruction are in school for only one day per week. As a result, very few students would be able to be assessed in person this spring.”

The DC waiver had large city school systems scratching the heads. Milwaukee had perhaps a stronger case for a waiver than DC. With the exception of special education students, 100% of Milwaukee students were virtual for most of the year. Student only started back to school in April. Grades 9, 10 and 11 will remain virtual for the remainder of the year with the exception of high school students who are in danger in failing.

In their letters to both Wisconsin DPI and the U.S. DOEd, the four Wisconsin urban superintendents made similar points that would be echoed in the DC waiver:

  • The test cannot be administered equitably across the district.
  • The test results may not be valid or useful.
  • Student experiences learning virtually have varied significantly between students. As a result, numerous students continue to struggle.

“We believe that the schools in Wisconsin should be granted the same flexibilities on standardized testing as other school districts across the nation, such as Washington, D.C.,” says Baez in the press release.

The only way Milwaukee could administer tests to high school students is to only bring them back on a single day for testing, an alternative that was rejected as a realistic possibility in the DC case.

Could it be that DOEd will not give blanket waivers to states but will give waivers to individual school districts? Or does it see DC as unique in that its school system covers all students as if it were a single state, unlike cities in the other states? Or is the federal government beginning to have a change of heart?

For Wisconsin, federal waivers for individual school districts would create a clear conflict. Wisconsin school systems would still have to test students under state law. Carolyn Stanford Taylor remains acting state superintendent until Jill Underly takes office in July. Neither is likely to grant a state waiver unless a federal waiver is granted first. And even here, the requirement for school and district report cards is codified in state law.

If waivers do not come soon, they are likely to come after the testing has been completed. At which point school officials will likely argue the test results are incomplete, invalid and not reliable – in short, a complete waste of time and money. Critics of urban schools, meanwhile, may look to use the results to bash the schools.

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3 thoughts on “K-12 Education: The Fight Over Standardized Testing”

  1. sbaldwin001 says:

    I agree with the MPS leaders on this. It’s been a chaotic year. Any test results are more likely to reflect this chaos than to provide useful information for teachers and decision makers. All schools, not just MPS, have a lot on their plates at the moment and administering a yearly standardized test is a low priority. All students have faced enough stress already. They know it has been a difficult year academically.

    Testing and accountability are important. Give the schools and the students a chance to recover and catch their breath. Plan the tests for next year, or better – consider a change to the test timing or format so that the results are most useful to the teachers. If there are seniors who would like the opportunity to show their progress to colleges, give them the option to take the tests.

  2. dmkrueger2 says:

    Every school district, parent and student dealt with the same pandemic.

    Let’s test and see which districts made the best decisions for the children in their districts.

    For those school districts that saw disproportionately lower test scores, let’s learn what we could do better for next time.

  3. sbaldwin001 says:

    dmkrueger2 – Your points are valid. However, they will be equally valid next year. The effects of this pandemic on academics are likely to last a long time. Yes, Milwaukee and the larger school districts are the most vocal about postponing these tests, but I doubt the other districts are enthusiastic about administering them. As I mentioned, all districts have a lot on their plates right now.

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