Pa. says it will allow public schools to postpone standardized tests until fall

After the federal government said states have to give tests, Pa. said it will comply, but give districts the option to test students early next school year.

Close-up of a standardized test.

Close-up of a standardized test. (Bigstock)

Pennsylvania will administer standardized tests this year, but give districts the option to delay the assessments until fall.

That’s the upshot of a draft letter to the federal government that the Pennsylvania Department of Education published on its website Tuesday.

The letter comes one day after President Joe Biden’s administration announced it would not allow states to waive federal standardized testing requirements.

The U.S. Department of Education did, however, say that states could administer tests remotely, give shortened versions of their annual exams, or “extend the testing window to the greatest extent practicable.”

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In its letter to the feds, Pennsylvania said it will take advantage of that final option.

Secretary of Education Noe Ortega wrote that Pennsylvania will allow districts and charter schools to “hold assessment materials until later in the calendar year (i.e., September 2021) to ensure that a larger, more representative sample of students participates in the assessments.”

The option would lie with individual districts, according to the letter.

The letter does not indicate that Pennsylvania will administer tests remotely or shorten them.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Standardized testing has long been contentious, but it’s been a particularly fraught topic during the coronavirus pandemic.

The federal government requires that states test students in grades 3-8 and once in high school, with exams typically taking place in the spring. Last spring, however, the U.S. Department of Education issued waivers as the pandemic upended in-person education.

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In its waning days, former President Donald Trump’s administration said it would not grant waivers again this spring, but that missive meant little after Biden defeated Trump in the November election.

The Biden administration made its much-anticipated decision this week, carving out a middle ground. The administration discouraged states from seeking waivers, but gave them flexibility on how to test, when to test, and the length of tests.

The U.S. Department of Education also invited states to submit waivers around federal accountability standards, which are tethered to student test scores. In essence, these waivers would suspend the identification and monitoring of schools considered under-achieving by virtue of their test scores.

“The intent of these flexibilities, and the accountability waivers described above, is to focus on assessments to provide information to parents, educators, and the public about student performance and to help target resources and supports,” the U.S. Department of Education wrote in a Monday letter to states.

Those who support standardized tests say having a common exam is critical to determine student progress — especially at a time when traditional learning has been disrupted.

“Assessments are important in understanding student academic achievement levels across the state, including the effect of the pandemic on student learning,” said Mike Magee, CEO of Chiefs for Change, in a statement. Magee’s organization includes superintendents from large districts across the country, including Philadelphia.

But testing skeptics say the focus right now should be on supporting students, not on testing them.

Among the most vocal critics have been teachers unions. Pennsylvania’s largest — the Pennsylvania State Education Association (PSEA) — said it’s unhappy with the Biden administration’s decision against forgoing testing entirely, but pleased that the state plans to take advantage of the flexibility granted.

Postponing until the fall buys time for schools to return to a stronger semblance of normal, though it’s unclear how frequent and widespread in-person learning will be even next school year.

“What’s really important is that educators and students will be able to spend more time this spring — the remainder of this school year — focused on teaching and learning,” said Chris Lillienthal, a spokesperson for PSEA.

In its letter to the federal government, the Pennsylvania Department of Education said the state “feels a moral imperative to assess students as one means of understanding and documenting learning loss; however, the assessment administration itself should not serve to aggravate or confound the issue.”

The state said it would be “impossible” for some districts to juggle their responsibilities in this hectic school year with the demands of testing administration.

The letter noted that, as of Oct. 1, 2020, 320 of the state’s 750 districts and charter schools were fully remote. Those 320 served disproportionately high numbers of economically disadvantaged students and students of color.

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