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Feds: School assessments must go on despite pandemic

Feds: School assessments must go on despite pandemic

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School rally

Buffalo's Early Childhood Center, School 82, held a pep rally to encourage pupils to do well on upcoming state assessment tests in 2009. 

State assessments don't have to be given this spring – states could administer them in the fall, according to the federal government.

They can be shorter than usual, and the results will not be held against the schools and districts. But state assessments of school children must go on to the extent possible in the pandemic, the U.S. Department of Education announced Monday.

New York State had asked earlier this month for a waiver from giving the annual assessments in grades three through eight, and some Regents exams.

The tests could not be "safely, equitably and fairly administered to all students across the state" because of how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected instruction and the well-being of students, state Education Commissioner Betty A. Rosa said in a letter to the U.S. Education Department seeking the waiver.

But the assessments are necessary "to help target resources and support to the students with the greatest needs," said Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education.

"In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing," Rosenblum said in a letter to state education leaders announcing that the federal government would not give blanket waivers to cancel the assessments.

"While we are disappointed by this decision, we are examining all possible options," state Education Department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said in a statement.

When Kristin Sommer, a library teacher at Cloverbank Elementary in Hamburg, became eligible for the Covid-19 vaccine, she couldn't find an appointment locally so she used the state's online portal where she was able to get an appointment later this month - 280 miles away in Potsdam, N.Y. - so she took it.

The federal government is giving flexibility to states on the testing requirements. They can move the assessments to the summer or fall, they can give the assessments remotely, where possible. They also can shorten the assessments to prioritize in-person learning. 

"Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test," Rosenblum told states.

States are invited to request a waiver to prevent schools from being held accountable for the results of this year's tests, including the provisions for relating to the 95% participation rate benchmark.

The 2020 assessments were canceled last spring by then Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. 

Buffalo parent activist Samuel Radford III praised the announcement. He said not using the assessments in a punitive way shows that the Biden administration listened to all points of view.

"We do need the data," Radford said. "Right now we need to know where the children are at. We need to know how to target resources toward the children who need it the most."

DeSantis said the state Education Department would propose changes in regulations to the Board of Regents next month to eliminate the need for Regents exams to meet graduation requirements and to cancel any Regents exam that is not required by the federal government.

Under federal law, math and English language arts assessments are to be given annually in grades three through eight, and once in grades nine through 12. Science assessments are to be given twice in grades three through nine and once in 10th through 12th grade.

Teacher unions were not pleased with the announcement. 

“In a year that has been anything but standard, mandating that students take standardized tests just doesn’t make sense,” Andy Pallotta, president of New York State United Teachers, said in a statement.

He said standardized tests are "especially unreliable" to measure a child's development at this time.

“We need to ensure that our students who have been hit hardest during the pandemic receive the support they need. Sizing up students with inequitable and stressful exams is not the solution,” Pallotta said.

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