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

Student taking a test

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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