Each year, states spend more than $7.1 billion on student testing.
This year, because of the pandemic, much of that money will be wasted.
The waste will be worse in Wisconsin. Republicans here are pushing hard for schools to reopen, and they may be inclined to use the hammer of student testing to force all Wisconsin schools to be open for in-person instruction.
Few education experts believe that the state assessments, usually given in April, will have enough students taking them to provide meaningful data, even in districts where students have been in the classroom the whole year. In these districts, a significant percentage of their students will be learning virtually because most schools offer this option. It is doubtful that many of these students will come into the school buildings just to take the tests.
Under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states must do mandatory student testing. Teachers and principals are to use those measurements in individual evaluations.
Wisconsin uses test scores as part of the state’s school report card evaluations. If fewer than 95% of students in a district take the tests required for their grade level, points will be deducted from the district’s score. Efforts are underway to eliminate the 95% participation penalty for this year, but as the number of students taking the tests fall, the value of the data declines as well. While most in-person students will probably take the tests, it is problematic whether students learning virtually will.
Last year, the COVID outbreak caught everyone off guard, and testing waivers were issued. Not this year. Before she left office, former Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said no more waivers would be issued. President Joe Biden’s Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona has said he would follow DeVos’ lead in not issuing new waivers. However, state after state is asking for student testing waivers.
“We already know that COVID-19 has caused a disruption in student learning, and instead of using valuable time to reaffirm that fact, we should be using that time to address student needs through instruction,” reads a Sept. 21 letter to DeVos signed by a South Carolina delegation. “Our hope is that by honoring this waiver request, some of this pressure will be alleviated and our students will have more time to focus on learning.” The letter was signed by Sens. Lindsey Graham and Tom Rice, and four South Carolina members of Congress.
Georgia’s state government remains in Republican hands, despite Biden’s victory there and the election of two Democratic senators. When the Department of Education last year denied the state’s request for a testing waiver for the 2020-2021 school year, the Republican State School Superintendent, Richard Woods, wrote a blistering open letter in response:
“98,000 people weighed in on our waiver request and 96% were in agreement with it … in a year when instructional time is so precious, why cut into it with high-stakes testing?” he wrote. “At a time when our economic outlook is still shaky and millions of dollars are having to be cut from our classrooms, why divert millions to high-stakes tests?”
Woods turns to the citizens of Georgia: “To our districts, families, educators, and students: don’t worry about the tests. Given the unique environment we are in, they are neither valid nor reliable measures of academic process or achievement.”
Democratic-leaning states have joined Republican-controlled ones in calling for waivers, which many believe that Cardona will ultimately grant. “The smart money is there will not be an outright waiver of federal requirements,” says Dan Rossmiller, director of governmental relations for the Wisconsin Association of School Boards (WASB), which supports waivers for tests this year.
If the federal DOE does grant the waivers, however, the controversy will not end in Wisconsin. State law does not give Wisconsin’s Department of Public Instruction or the governor the authority to issue waivers — even if the feds do.
Governor vs. Legislature
In November, Evers asked the Legislature to renew the testing waivers for this year as part of his second proposed COVID relief bill, but the bill has yet to pass the Legislature.
The goal expressed frequently by legislative Republicans is getting kids back in classrooms, by any means necessary.
“I believe, strongly that we need to get our kids back in school,” Sen. Howard Marklein (R-Spring Green), co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, told a WisPolitics audience Thursday. “While we haven’t talked about any specifics in our caucus on K-12 funding, I think that the idea of providing incentives, or whatever, for our kids to be back in school is going to be something that we may be considering.”
School systems that are virtual are mostly in large cities and Democratic areas. These districts will either still be virtual or just getting back to classrooms when the testing deadlines come up. Republican school districts are more likely to be conducting in-person classes and will have fewer problems administering the tests. That doesn’t mean that Republican areas of the state are happy with the testing regimen, however.
“None of my school districts want to do this test,” says Sen. Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee), whose district ranges from liberals in the north to conservatives in the south.
Larson offered legislation to suspend this year’s testing, but those efforts were shot down. “You will have skewed data,” says Larson. “The fear is that it will be used [like] what a lot of the testing and report cards have been used for, to punish schools that need it the most.”
When asked whether there might be a testing waiver from the Legislature, Larson replies, “It really depends on what outstate schools are doing, and I’m not as familiar if they are ready to do tests. If they’re not, then there is a chance that we get away and they say ‘we are not going to do it again this year.’ But I’ve got to tell you, Republicans haven’t given a speech in the state Senate without talking about how they are anxious to punish public schools that are closed.”
One of those lawmakers is Sen. Dale Kooyenga (R-Brookfield), who advocates using the state budget to withhold funds for schools operating virtually. On the floor of the Wisconsin Senate on Jan. 28, Kooyenga praised the richest school systems in his district, Elmbrook and New Berlin, for staying open with in-person education, while he criticized West Allis and Wauwatosa for continuing hybrid instruction and Milwaukee, the poorest school system in his district, for maintaining virtual instruction.
Yet school systems such as Milwaukee have crowded classrooms where social distancing will be problematic, and many buildings are more than 100 years old, making ventilation difficult. Wisconsin Examiner has already highlighted that many Black and brown families are skeptical about returning to in-person education before teachers are vaccinated and other safety measures are in place.
“I’m going to pound the table until they open these schools. Open the schools!” Kooyenga emphatically said, a message he has repeated throughout the session. He then went on to say he was going to punish schools that do not open with amendments in the budget process. Knowing that testing waivers can only be granted by the state Legislature, he and Republicans have not been inclined to grant such waivers.
Wisconsin’s required ACT test cannot be taken remotely; it must be given under strict guidelines and on limited dates, in person: Students must come into the buildings. The state is trying to get ACT to be more flexible, but no agreement has been reached.
Meanwhile, anti-testing organizations such as FairTest are pushing for elimination of standardized testing. Members have boycotted testing in the past with only limited impact, mostly in progressive communities. But protests could grow as the usefulness of standardized testing continues to be questioned.
Chris Thiel, a legislative policy specialist with Milwaukee Public Schools, sees the whole testing program as being pointless this year. Thiel quotes former state Sen. Luther Olsen, who said of Wisconsin’s required tests, that the process could be used either as “a hammer or a flashlight.”
Given that state testing this year will shed little light on how students are doing, it seems likely that Kooyenga and others may just want to bring the hammer down.