The Fight Over Standardized Testing
MPS, urban school systems push federal government for testing waivers, citing lost instruction time during pandemic.
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.
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.
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.
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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