Philly plans to give standardized tests to students who return in person this spring

Close-up of a standardized test.

Close-up of a standardized test. (Bigstock)

Ask us about COVID-19: What questions do you have about the coronavirus and vaccines?

The School District of Philadelphia plans to administer state standardized tests this spring to students who attend school in-person — rather than waiting until next fall to give the tests.

That’s according to an internal memo obtained by WHYY.

Students in grades 3-5 who choose the hybrid, in-person option will be asked to take the annual PSSA tests, which are required under federal law.

The memo states that students who remain in all-virtual education this school year will not be asked to take standardized tests this spring. It is possible those students will have to take the tests next school year.

There’s widespread debate and confusion around standardized testing this spring.

The federal government has told states it must administer standardized tests this year, but granted some flexibility on when they can be given.

Taking advantage of that leeway, Pennsylvania told school districts that they could give the annual exams this spring — when they’d usually be given — or next fall.

The School District of Philadelphia has been tight-lipped about whether it would use that flexibility. When WHYY asked a district spokesperson on Monday about the district’s plans, the spokesperson said the district had not yet decided.

But the memo clearly states that the district plans to test students who return to school in person for this quarter.

Students in grades PreK-2 have already been given the option to return to in-person classes twice a week. However, the vast majority of students in those grades do not take state-sanctioned standardized tests.

Students in grades 3-5 do take standardized tests annually in English language arts and math. Fourth-grade students also take a state science test.

The district recently announced that students in grades 3-5 have the option of attending school twice a week starting on April 26. From that point until the end of the semester, there are seven remaining weeks — or roughly 14 days of in-person class.

It’s unclear how many of those days will be taken up with standardized tests — though it could be as many as half. The state math and science tests have two sections each. The English language arts exam has three proctored sections.

In a typical year, each section would be administered on a separate day. This year, however, principals will have the ability to give multiple test sections on a given day, according to the memo.

As in any year, parents can opt their children out of statewide standardized assessments — although historically few parents have taken this option.

The district’s unpublicized testing plan has come to light as parents make final decisions about in-person learning.

Parents of children in grades 3-5 have until next Tuesday, April 13 to decide whether they’d like their children to attend school in-person twice a week or remain fully online. The same goes for parents of middle school children who have complex needs.

Standardized testing requirements are beyond district control. If the district did not test students, it could lose federal dollars, including the recent stimulus that delivered an unprecedented windfall to the School District of Philadelphia.

Last spring, the Trump administration canceled the federal testing mandate as schools coped with the early waves of the pandemic and imposed unprecedented closures.

This spring, the Biden administration decided not to offer testing waivers to states, arguing that the data would help determine what students have learned during the pandemic. Skeptics said testing would be disruptive and that the data would be less useful in a year made more difficult by the fact that many students aren’t attending in-person.

Districts like Philadelphia are now in a difficult position.

State and federal authorities require the district to at least attempt to test students before the end of September. Test packets for individual students have already been generated. Trying to track students down next fall — after they’ve changed grades and schools — could be a logistical nightmare. But testing this spring could eat away at the small amount of instructional time schools have left in this already unusual year.

The district has taken something of a middle path, according to the plan outlined in the memo. It will give tests to students who are in physical classrooms, but not require all-virtual students to take tests this spring.

Whether those all-virtual students will then have to take standardized tests this fall is unclear at this point.

The district’s testing plan also applies to the ACCESS test, an exam taken by students who are learning English, and the PASA test, an exam taken by students with disabilities.

Get more Pennsylvania stories that matter

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal