Betsy DeVos: Michigan can expect standardized tests, despite COVID-19

Student taking a test

COVID or not, it’s likely that Michigan students will be required to take the M-STEP test this year. (Shutterstock)

Michigan students should expect to take federally-mandated state standardized tests this school year despite potential quarantines and school closures from COVID-19.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos notified Michigan State Superintendent Michael Rice and other state school chiefs across the country Thursday that states “should not anticipate” waivers to the federal requirement to administer state standardized tests for the 2020-21 school year.

In Michigan, that means students will be required to take the M-STEP in the  spring.

“It is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials,” DeVos wrote in a letter to state school chiefs.  

“There is broad and consistent support for assessments because there is general agreement among the public that a student’s achievement should be measured, that parents deserve to know how their children are performing, and that it should be no secret how a school’s performance as a whole compares to other schools.”

You can read DeVos’ full letter here.

States were granted waivers from federally-mandated standardized tests this spring, when schools across the country were closed in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has so far killed 186,000 in the United States and more than 6,500 in Michigan.

Superintendent Rice and State Board of Education President Casandra Ulbrich, D-Rochester Hills, requested a similar waiver for the 2020-21 school year, arguing that the time needed for test preparation could be better spent helping students catch up on what is expected to be a significant learning loss from being out of school for almost six months.

In a statement Thursday, Rice said he disagreed with the U.S. Department of Education’s ruling.

“We agree with the need to know where children are academically in a pandemic, but strongly disagree with the need to use spring state summative assessments for this purpose,” Rice wrote. “Recent state law requires benchmark assessments in the fall and in the spring of this school year for this purpose.”

Benchmark assessments give teachers a sense of students’ strengths and weaknesses, but unlike the federally mandated M-STEP, the tests may vary from school to school, and scores are not used to compare different schools’ education outcomes.

Many of those returning to classrooms will do so wearing face masks, and others will be learning from home.

Forcing students to take standardized tests in the middle of a global pandemic “doesn’t reflect the realities our schools are facing or the needs of our students,” Robert McCann, executive director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a statewide education advocacy organization, told Bridge Thursday. “The last thing we need to be doing is focusing on federally mandated tests.”

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blasted DeVos’ decision as “cruel.”

“From forcing high-stakes testing on our young children during a global pandemic to trying to strip dollars away from schools in need of critical funding, Betsy DeVos has proven time and again that she doesn’t share our priorities for protecting and improving public education,” Whitmer said in a news release. 

“This virus has had an unprecedented impact on our kids, and forcing them to take these assessments during a time when families everywhere are working around the clock to stay safe is cruel.”

Ulbrich, the state board president, told Bridge the decision wasn’t unexpected, because the administration of President Donald Trump has pushed in several ways for a return to normalcy in the nation’s schools.

In Michigan, the M-STEP is generally used to gauge how students are faring compared to students in other schools. Test results also are used as a factor in teacher evaluations. And under recently passed legislation, third-grade test results can determine whether they advance to fourth grade, based on reading scores.

In general, Republicans in Lansing have favored standardized tests, while Democrats have opposed them.

In her letter, DeVos acknowledged the profound challenges posed by the pandemic, and the likelihood it disproportionately impacted learning among low-income and minority students as well as those with disabilities. 

But she also noted that several influential national groups, including The Education Trust, The Foundation for Excellence in Education and the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress support efforts to measure student progress in the wake of the coronavirus.  

“Make no mistake,” she wrote, “if we fail to assess students, it will have a lasting effect for years to come.”

 Ulbrich said that if Trump is not re-elected in November, state officials likely would reapply for a test waiver from a new Democratic administration. 

“Come January, there could be a new president and this conversation could continue,” Ulbrich said.

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Fri, 09/04/2020 - 11:09am

It is unfortunate that the Department of Education is led by someone who has no clue about education other than loving charter schools and especially charter schools that make money for the operators. DeVos is just one more of Trump's poor choices to head Federal agencies but what else can we expect from the likes of Trump and DeVos--Ineptitude!

Fri, 09/04/2020 - 7:05pm

"In general, Republicans in Lansing have favored standardized tests, while Democrats have opposed them."

That must be a new stand that they have, unless the SAT and CAT are different than Common Core.

Test Test Test

High stakes testing has been with us longer than the Common Core, but part of the concept of Common Core was to get all fifty states testing the same thing. The PARCC and SBA tests were built to test how well schools were teaching Common Core Standards, and while many states dumped them, they replaced them with tests that were similarly aligned. Those test results were in turn used to evaluate districts, schools and teachers, and because the stakes were high, it’s those tests, more than any other single factor, that gave the Common Core power over what happens in the classroom. Even the SAT and ACT have become more Common Core friendly (the head of the College Board, producers of the SAT, is David Coleman, an architect of the Common Core).

As long as a state uses high-stakes testing as the foundation of its education evaluation program, whatever the test is aligned to will drive the school bus— and right now, all of those tests are aligned to the Common Core Standards.
— On testing and the Common Core: Republicans “congratulate” states that have “repealed” the academic standards. And on testing, they find some common ground with Democrats: The platform rejects “excessive testing and ‘teaching to the test’ and supports the need for strong assessments to serve as a tool so teachers can tailor teaching to meet student needs.” The platform also encourages “instruction in American history and civics by using the original documents of our founding fathers.”
Some Republicans and Tea Party activists focus on the Common Core standards themselves, calling them a federal intrusion by President Barack Obama, even though they were developed by the National Governors Association and each state’s education leaders in the wake of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind program.
The debate over testing has fractured both parties. Tea Party–backed and social conservatives, including presidential hopefuls like Texas Senator Ted Cruz and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, decry the entirety of No Child Left Behind. The testing, the sanctions, the clumsy system of waivers–all of it amounts to shameless government overreach into what ought to be a local matter, they say.

Establishment and corporate-side Republicans, meanwhile, typically support the law as a valuable accountability tool. The Chamber of Commerce Foundation compared the federal testing requirement to an “annual academic checkup.” “I always thought it was a conservative and sensible public policy to demand some accountability for investments,” Margaret Spellings, who was President Bush’s Secretary of Education and an architect of the law, told Time last month

It seems that is why teachers are in some limbo about the tests.
How the governors feel about the test results depends entirely on where they stand on the political spectrum. Blue state governors praise the findings when they are above the national average, and they call for increased funding when they are below. Red state governors, whose state’s scores are generally below average, insist that the results are a clear call for vouchers and more charter schools – in a word, choice. District administrators and teachers live in fear that they will be blamed for bad scores; and they will.
Middle-of-the-road Republican presidential hopefuls like former Florida governor Jeb Bush and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie will likely walk a tightrope between the two wings of their party, calling for both accountability measures and devolution of power to the states

Democrats are similarly divided. Their liberal wing, which traditionally leans on the teachers’ unions as pillars of support, objects to No Child Left Behind for forcing teachers to “teach to the test,” molding children into automatons and sacrificing critical-thinking skills at the altar of filling in the right bubble.
There is no single Republican position on standardized testing per se. The Republican Party is generally opposed to much standardized testing right now, but that is largely because they see it as being mandated by the federal government which is, of course, being led by President Obama.

This is why they now back testing. Republicans are in control.

This isn't supposed to be a war. It's not bad v good. It's supposed to be adults compromising to better their own future and the future of our children. Why is this generation failing so badly at it? You can give out all the tests you want. If you want to judge education in the whole country though, it should be the same test, otherwise you aren't measuring the whole country. In the free market world you don't always get four answers to choose from or the numbers and what to do with them. And you might move to a different state or country.

Sun, 09/06/2020 - 11:00am

A Federal Judge recently ruled that DeVos' formula for distributing covid funds meant for public schools to private schools was illegal. This is just another instance where a Trump administration grifter attempted to ignore the law in order to benefit themselves. "Lock her up" !

Mon, 09/07/2020 - 9:20pm

Betsy can expect to be unemployed come January. It would be sweet if she ended up in prison with her boss.