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Next Victim of Coronavirus: Standardized Tests!

On the good side, coronavirus may kill standardized tests this year.

The College Board has canceled SATs scheduled for March 28 and May 2. ACT Inc. has postponed its April 4 exam to June 13.

South Dakota’s third- through eighth-graders and high school juniors are supposed to take their “Smarter Balanced” (they are neither) standardized tests this spring. Fifth-, eighth-, and eleventh-graders also get the Science test. Locally, Holgate Middle School had planned to disrupt my child’s education by drawing out the state’s standardized tests over a five-week period:

Holgate Middle School state standardized testing schedule, school newsletter, March 2020
Holgate Middle School state standardized testing schedule, school newsletter, March 2020.

Yeesh—if we have to take standardized tests, we could at least go back to the good old days when everyone cranked through them all at once in a couple days and we got them out of the way as quickly as possible so we could get back to regular teaching and learning.

With Governor Kristi Noem’s extension of our flu holiday to two weeks, Holgate Middle Schoolers will miss most of the scheduled math test days. Even though the tests are taken on computer, there is no way to administer the tests remotely. Schools would have to oversee and troubleshoot the installation of lockdown browsers on every home computer. Everyone who proctors the tests, teacher or otherwise, must take a proctor certification course, sign a non-disclosure agreement, and fulfill the following duties (see pp. 7–8 of the state’s test manual):

  • Complete assessment administration training
  • Review all Science or Smarter Balanced policy and administration documents
  • Give the right test and appropriate assistance to each student.
  • Report data errors
  • Assure the test environment “meets the specific requirements”
  • Report all potential test security incidents

Teachers and proctors are also supposed to recite the same script verbatim to every test taker. They must also enforce the following conditions for “Security of the Test Environment“:

South Dakota K-12 standardized test security requirements, "South Dakota's Online, Summative, Test Administration Manual," SD Department of Education, 2020.02.06.
South Dakota K-12 standardized test security requirements, “South Dakota’s Online, Summative, Test Administration Manual,” SD Department of Education, 2020.02.06, p. 12.
South Dakota K-12 standardized test security requirements, "South Dakota's Online, Summative, Test Administration Manual," SD Department of Education, 2020.02.06, p. 13.
South Dakota K-12 standardized test security requirements, “South Dakota’s Online, Summative, Test Administration Manual,” SD Department of Education, 2020.02.06, p. 13.

The schools can’t very well send teachers to every child’s home to monitor every student’s test-taking, and they can’t enforce the above conditions remotely, so they’d have to train parents how to use the online testing portal, read the script, and follow all of the security conditions. There’s no way the school district will allow parents to proctor their own children or allow the proprietary test questions out into the wild where any parent can make copies of the test materials (imagine screen shots of the questions tweeted to the world).

And even if we could dispatch robots to all of our quarantined homes to hold children hostage until they completed the standardized tests, what good would the results be? Taking tests in remote sites in unusual and widely varying conditions (student on Ninth Street takes test in blissfully silent house in brightly lit dining room; student on Tenth Street takes test at cramped bedroom desk while Dad blares Fox News in the kitchen and Mom shouts into her corporate Skype calls in the living room) guarantees results that can’t be compared from student to student or to the tests of past years taken under the far more controlled conditions of the classroom. Even if we wait until the kids go back to school (and other states have already pulled the plug on the rest of this school year), the time away from the regular classroom almost guarantees lower scores that will be asterisked into oblivion as measures of the disruption caused by covid-19, not valid measures of the effectiveness of our teachers.

The entire testing environment has been disrupted; we can’t get valid scores this school year. Georgia’s state school chief appears to recognize that fact:

Meanwhile, looming this spring are the Georgia Milestones, the mandatory standardized tests used to measure how well students have been taught.

Amid the tumult, State School Superintendent Richard Woods announced Monday that he is suspending the test administration period “for the foreseeable future.”

Woods, who oversees the Georgia Department of Education, lacks authority to cancel the tests outright. Most of them are mandated by the federal government and all of them by state law. His office said he is asking for permission, though.

…Woods’ decision comes as a relief for teachers, who feared being penalized for lower test scores resulting from the global pandemic….

Emergency school closures are necessary to shield teachers and students from infection but are undermining education, said Charlotte Booker, president of the Georgia Association of Educators. Her group and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators called for approval of federal waivers.

“I don’t know how you could get a fair score,” Booker said. “There’s no way we can expect our students to be at their best” [Ty Tagami, “Georgia Milestones, Other State School Tests Suspended,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution, 2020.03.16].

Federal and state laws mandate these standardized tests. On March 12, the federal Department of Education announced that it may allow states where schools close for the entire testing period to apply for one-year waivers of the testing requirements. But hey, South Dakota Legislature! Here’s your chance to be real sensible mavericks: don’t wait for the waiver. Add to your list of emergency bills to pass on Veto Day Bill #11: amend SDCL 13-3-55 to allow the cancellation of the state’s mandated standardized tests when a public health emergency makes normal testing impossible.

We can’t conduct standardized tests amidst the current public health crisis. Students and parents have a big enough challenge on their hands developing a smarter balance of their self-directed learning activities (read good books, practice math, draw pictures, do crafts, cook and do carpentry with your parents, fill out your family’s Census form online while talking civics with your folks!); let’s take the standardized tests off their shoulders and help everyone focus on productive learning tasks.

8 Comments

  1. o 2020-03-18

    Cory, I would take issue with calling these two weeks a “flu holiday.” Most (if not all) schools are looking at ways to make this time away from the schoolhouse distance learning, where students remain engaged in school and teachers work to avoid skill slide and even progress through curriculum.

    I also see this as a time where communities and parents especially will be forced to reflect on the importance of schools to our students’ health, nutrition, and education needs. Families will also come face to face with the crucial role schools play in the supervision and safety of their children — allowing parents to have professional contributions to their communities.

  2. Debbo 2020-03-18

    I keep hearing about Zoom, the app many teachers are planning to use for online teaching. Anyone here use Zoom? Do you like it? Maybe I’ll download it for chats.

  3. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-03-20

    Debbo, Zoom is the smoothest video-conferencing software I’ve used. Give it a try!

  4. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-03-20

    O, I’ll agree that these days should not be treated as a holiday, and I’ll acknowledge that good teachers are probably working overtime trying to convert their face-to-face plans into effective independent parent-supervised study modules with some sort of remote professional support. But given that the Aberdeen district hasn’t put those packets into kids hands yet, for kids here, it feels like a snow day without snow.

    I agree with the bigger point, too: this upheaval of our schools, workplaces, and economy are occasion for enormous, potentially culture-changing reflection on how vital public schools are for kids, families, and normal economic activity.

  5. Debbo 2020-03-20

    Thanks Cory. I will try Zoom.

  6. Cory Allen Heidelberger Post author | 2020-03-22

    The feds have cleared the way for us to drop the tests:

    In K-12, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced the department will waive standardized test requirements for states affected by the virus. States must apply for the exemption, and many have already begun to do so. “Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time,” DeVos said in a statement. “Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment.”

    Under federal law, states are required to test students each year in core subjects in grades three through eight, plus once during high school. These tests typically take place in the spring. Although most states have moved to computer-based testing, this announcement is a recognition of the reality that schools are shut down and education has been interrupted for most students nationwide [Elissa Nadworny, “Education Dept. Makes Changes To Standardized Tests, Student Loans Over Coronavirus” NPR, 2020.03.20].

    Submit that waiver request, Governor Noem!

  7. mike from iowa 2020-03-22

    Nice Day.

  8. Debbo 2020-03-22

    I have heard that while our attention is diverted Betsy DeVoid of All Humanity is taking $ away from the poorest schools. Anyone else? 👂👂👂

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