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Bridge Michigan
Michigan’s nonpartisan, nonprofit news source

Battle in Michigan schools over need for standardized tests this year

Republicans and Democrats are fighting over whether Michigan students should take standardized tests during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

A series of school reopening bills passed by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in Lansing Wednesday includes a requirement for at least some standardized tests. Those bills now move to the Senate.

Bills introduced earlier in the day by Democrats in the House and Senate recommend a one-year reprieve from the tests, including the state’s major assessment, the M-STEP.

Because Republicans control both the House and Senate, the Democrat-sponsored bills are unlikely to move forward.

The M-STEP was cancelled this spring after Michigan’s K-12 public and private schools were closed to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus, with homebound students receiving instruction online or through printed packets.

The state requested and received a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education from requirements that schools offer standardized assessments to students during the 2019-20 school year. 

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer wants a similar waiver for the 2020-21 school year, and State Superintendent Michael Rice has requested it.

“We are still in the midst of a pandemic and, therefore, are still supportive of waivers of these federal assessment requirements, in addition to a suspension of the testing requirements in state law, including but not limited to those associated with teacher and administrator evaluations, and school accountability,” Rice told Bridge in June.

Many school leaders also oppose testing in the coming year. Superintendents of six large intermediate school districts wrote a letter to Rice and Whitmer in June asking that they cancel standardized testing for 2020-21.

“Every educator's first and foremost priority will be to work with students individually, assess their needs and help them readjust to in-person learning,” the letter said. “Standardized testing only provides a snapshot of a student’s performance on a single test and will in no way assist teachers, parents and students with day-to-day instructional needs in the upcoming school year.”

Standardized tests are required by federal law, and are used to assess the educational progress of students, as well as the performance of teachers, schools and states. The M-STEP allows comparisons between schools and student groups in Michigan. Another test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, allows comparisons between students in different states.

Without testing, families, schools and the state will have less ability to measure how much students are learning. 

The Republican school reopening plan allows more “e-learning” days, in which students would learn online rather than in classrooms, but also requires students in kindergarten through fifth grade to receive face-to-face instruction, which many families oppose as do most Democrats.

The package would require schools to administer at least one benchmark assessment test in the first 30 days of the upcoming school year. Tests would be required for students in kindergarten through eighth grade, and would measure proficiency in reading and math.

That kind of testing is typically done in Michigan schools, with those assessments used to identify students who need additional academic support.

Bill sponsors Pamela Hornberger, R-Chesterfield Township, and Andrea Schroeder, R-Independence Township, did not return requests for comment.  Beth DeShone of the conservative Great Lakes Education Project, said the learning loss that likely occurred from students being away from classrooms for almost six months makes those tests even more important.

“We believe that parents, students and teachers deserve to know what, if any, learning loss happened while schools were shuttered this spring,” DeShone  told Bridge in an email about the Republican proposal requiring tests. 

“One important way to measure that is through benchmark assessments for all students as soon as school resumes. The information provided can help parents and teachers navigate learning and lesson plans accordingly for students.”

But critics of testing note that most students take multiple tests over the school year that take away up to several weeks of academic instruction, and that this year it’s more important than ever for teachers to devote more of their time to instruction because of larger-than-normal learning loss.

In an average year, most Michigan students take a lot of assessments. For example, in Holt Public Schools in Ingham County, third-graders had taken four tests measuring reading level by mid-October of 2019. “The tests never end,” Holt third-grade teacher Michale Adams told Bridge last year.

Ann Arbor Public Schools Superintendent Jeanice Swift told Bridge she expects it will take three years for students to fully catch up from the academic loss caused by the pandemic. Swift said she supports a one-year pause on standardized testing. 

Testing has become a partisan line in the sand in Michigan, with Republicans generally in favor of testing. In Michigan, test results are also used in teacher and school evaluations, and to determine if third-graders should be retained if they are poor readers. 

Democrats, on the other hand, are generally suspect of standardized tests as a measure of academic success, and oppose tests that are high stakes for teachers (meaning, that they would factor into their annual reviews) but have no stakes for students. Teacher unions, a powerful backer of (mostly) Democratic candidates, also have been critical of the time demands the tests impose on classrooms and their link to performance evaluations. 

“Our students don’t need to spend days upon end in front of computers taking state and federally mandated tests,” Sen. Dayna Polehanki, D-Livonia, said Wednesday. “Not to mention, that social distancing recommendations may vastly reduce testing classroom and computer lab space, so that testing time could double or even quadruple.”

GLEP’s DeShone disagreed.  

“The Return to Learn bills are common sense steps that should provide peace of mind to everyone and will ensure that the system that couldn’t pivot swiftly to support students and teachers two years in a row due to weather and then the pandemic will finally have more tools in the toolbox to get it right the next time.”

Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a school advocacy group, said testing “certainly shouldn’t be (a partisan issue) because right now we need everyone focused on what's best for students. “In the best of times, standardized testing is a tool that gets misused.”

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