Standardized tests weren’t too popular among Lancaster county educators to begin with.
They’re even less so during a pandemic.
Local school officials this week expressed frustration over the news that they’ll have to administer federally mandated, high-stakes tests during a year beset by sickness, quarantines, intermittent shifts to remote learning and potentially great learning loss.
“Simply put, these narrowly-focused, standardized assessments are just not that important right now after everything our students and staff have already endured,” Ephrata Area School District Superintendent Brian Troop said.
The U.S. Department of Education on Monday announced it would not be waiving the federal standardized test requirement as it did last year, despite social distancing, remote learning and student and staff quarantines still wreaking havoc on the nation’s schools due to the coronavirus pandemic. Instead, the department issued guidance to states, allowing them to either extend the testing window to the summer or fall, shorten the tests or administer them remotely.
In a follow-up draft communication to the federal government, Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega proposed extending the testing window for state assessments, like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment, or PSSA, until the fall.
While local school officials told LNP | LancasterOnline they appreciate the flexibility extending the testing window brings, they say conducting these exams at all during what is still a tumultuous time for schools is a mistake.
The chairs of Pennsylvania’s state Senate Education Committee on Wednesday asked the Biden administration to waive this year’s requirement for school standardized testing because of the pandemic.
Sens. Scott Martin, R-Lancaster, and Lindsey Williams, D-Allegheny, wrote in a letter that they understood the need to find out how much learning and what kind of learning children missed during the pandemic.
But students also need “some sense of stability before we thrust additional stress on them in the name of determining what schools ‘deserve’ more funding,” they wrote to President Joe Biden and Acting Education Secretary Miguel Cardona.
‘In-person learning is precious’
Students will now lose five to eight days of instruction to assessments during a year in which they have already lost a significant amount of classroom instruction, Troop said. Students enrolled in online classes might be forced to come into school to participate in the tests, going against the family’s wishes. And bringing additional students into classrooms will add to the ongoing challenge of keeping students socially distanced.
As for extending the testing period, “I cannot imagine asking students to come in over the summer to take these tests, as I cannot identify one solitary benefit this would create for students,” he said.
For Brian Bliss, superintendent of Solanco School District, the largest county school district geographically, standardized tests will be just another disruption in already disruptive school year.
“This year we have tackled the repeated disruptions of school closures, classroom quarantines, and individual student/staff quarantines,” Bliss said in an email. “Notably, our chief philosophy during COVID-19 has remained clear: in-person learning is precious and hard-fought to maintain.”
He said administering standardized tests, even later in the year, would be “daunting,” and is incompatible with efforts to preserve a safe, in-person learning environment for students.
Identifying learning loss
In Ortega’s letter, he said state officials feel “a moral imperative to assess students as one means of understanding and documenting learning loss,” especially with many students still learning remotely.
Mike Leichliter, superintendent of the 5,400-student Penn Manor School District, said that while measuring learning loss during the pandemic is important, the disadvantages of replacing instructional time for mass testing outweigh the advantages.
“The requirements for social distancing and the extended amount of time needed to safely comply with all of the necessary health as well as testing protocols means that testing will take away precious classroom time for actual instruction when we have already experienced lost instructional time as a direct result of the pandemic,” he said.
In Lancaster County, all school districts have in-person and online learning options, with some implementing a blended approach for older students. School District of Lancaster, which finished transitioning high school students back to a blended model in January, was the latest county school district to bring students back to the classroom.
Lancaster Superintendent Damaris Rau said in an email that learning loss is already well-documented. In a school board meeting last month, Rau said the 11,000-student school district has 1,400 kids failing at least one course, more than 1,000 failing two courses and 506 failing three courses.
Addressing learning loss in the classroom, she said in the email, is more important than collecting duplicative evidence of the pandemic’s impact on learning.
‘The right balance’
State Education Department spokeswoman Kendall Alexander said officials feel the federal government’s testing guidance “strikes the right balance.” The state, she said, cannot cancel federally required tests, but the department is exploring “additional flexibilities, as appropriate and available” in addition to extending the testing window.
Teachers, too, aren’t thrilled with the federal government’s unwillingness to cancel tests this year. Rich Askey, president of Pennsylvania State Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, issued a statement saying educators “believe that if we truly want schools and educators to focus on learning recovery, we shouldn’t be administering standardized tests at all this year.”
PSEA, however, welcomes the additional flexibility offered by the state’s proposal to extend the testing period, as it may allow for safer testing conditions, he said.
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.