Michigan students, homebound for months because of the worst pandemic in a century and facing a return to school with social distancing and possibly face masks, shouldn’t have to take standardized tests.
That was the message of State Superintendent Michael Rice, a bipartisan group of legislators and school leaders from across the state Thursday.
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If tests are eliminated for the upcoming school year, students would not take the M-STEP, third-graders would not face the possibility of being held back in grade for poor reading scores on the M-STEP, and teachers would not have student test scores used as part of their annual performance reviews.
In separate statements, leaders in the Legislature, the Michigan Department of Education and school districts all pushed for a reprieve from federally mandated assessments.
Rice told Bridge in an email statement that he will ask the U.S. Department of Education for a waiver of requirements for students assessments for the coming school year, due to the ongoing pandemic. He cited the federal government's approval of standardized test waives this past spring, during the initial surge of COVID-19.
"State Board of Education President Dr. Casandra Ulbrich and I advocated for a national suspension of the federal testing requirement in a letter to the U.S. Secretary of Education in March, in the midst of the pandemic … We applied (for a waiver) … and the waiver was approved,” Rice said. “We initiated this waiver request because we were in a pandemic and state testing was the least of our concerns at the time.
“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’s announcement came just hours after the superintendents of six large intermediate school districts wrote a letter to him and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer asking that they cancel standardized testing for 2020-21.
The letter, delivered Thursday, is signed by the intermediate school superintendents of Wayne, Macomb, Oakland, Washtenaw, St. Clair, Genesee and Monroe counties.
“We are asking that you seek suspension of federal requirements to administer standardized assessment testing in the 2020-2021 school year,” the letter said. “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. 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. Another test, the National Assessment of Educational Progress, allows comparisons between students in different states.
States were granted waivers to cancel tests this spring, when most schools around the country were closed to try to slow the spread of the coronavirus. Now, some states are moving to request waivers for the coming year.
The Republican-controlled Georgia Legislature and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp want to cancel most standardized tests for the coming school year, and a similar move is afoot in Oklahoma.
“We request the MDE seek those same waivers and give our schools the flexibility they’ll need to help our students get back to class successfully,” the letter said.
Standardized tests typically administered to Michigan students primarily consist of the M-STEP for grades 3-8 and 11. Educators anticipate that students will have lost some academic learning by September, after being without in-person instruction for about six months.
A spokesperson for Whitmer and state superintendent Rice did not immediately return a request for comment.
The request could run into opposition from Republican legislators, who unveiled their own school reopening plan Tuesday that included “benchmark assessments,” which would be some form of standardized tests, to be administered at least three times during the 2020-21 school year. A news release about the plan said tests would “provide detailed information to parents and teachers about where a student needs additional help, ensuring kids do not fall behind in the wake of the public health crisis.”
Whitmer will release her own school reopening plan June 30.
Robert McCann, director of the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education advocacy organization in Southeast Michigan, said standardized tests are not a high priority at a time when families and educators are worried about school safety. “Find me a parent who says they are looking forward to getting their children back to school so they can take tests,” McCann said.
The letter also asked the Michigan Department of Education to release $39 million in federal CARES Act funds for schools it is now holding in reserve.
“We are asking for MDE to immediately release the remaining $39 million to all districts on a per-pupil basis to help them prepare for a return to in-person learning this fall,” the letter said.
Rice told Bridge in a statement that the funds (which MDE calculates to be lower, at about $37 million) will be distributed to local school districts “to address a digital divide between those that have technology and those that don't, and to address mental health service gaps for children.”
Rice said there will be “a competitive application process, based on need, for these dollars shortly.”