School hasn’t started yet, but NYC council members are already calling to cancel state tests

Photo by Ben Mullins on Unsplash

By Reema Amin, originally published in Chalkbeat New York

The state math and reading tests for third-to-eighth graders aren’t typically administered until April, but more than a dozen New York City Council members are already asking for Albany’s support in canceling the exams this upcoming school year.

Fourteen council members sent a letter this week to state education officials asking them to request a testing waiver from the U.S. Department of Education, which mandates states administer the tests.

As New York City schools prepare hybrid in-person/remote learning schedules in the fall that will largely require students to learn from home, council members are concerned about added pressure, especially at a time when learning disparities are expected to be rampant as many families will likely continue to struggle with remote learning, and many communities have been traumatized by the coronavirus and school closures.

“Amidst the extreme conditions of the COVID-19 pandemic, conducting state tests cannot possibly be fair to students,” the council members wrote Tuesday to Regents Chancellor Betty A. Rosa and Interim Commissioner Shannon Tahoe. “[They] would serve no meaningful purpose, would take time and money away from other more important priorities for learning and healing, and would primarily serve to increase anxiety in a traumatic time.”

As school buildings shuttered this spring, the federal government allowed states to cancel upcoming state exams and school accountability requirements. After that, New York’s education leaders almost immediately requested a testing waiver and suspended the exams, as well as other standardized tests and Regents exams.

Some states have announced their desire to suspend exams for another year. Leaders in Georgia, Michigan, and South Carolina said they will ask the federal government for a waiver. New York state leaders have not yet said where they stand. A department spokesperson said officials are reviewing the letter and declined to say whether they are considering requesting a waiver. Officials have already posted a testing schedule for next school year — normally done this far in advance to allow schools to plan, a spokesperson said.

The city declined to say whether it backed the letter’s position on state tests for next year. Education department spokesperson Danielle Filson said the school system is “laser focused on a safe return” to school buildings and any decisions on assessments are up to the state.

Ian Rosenblum, executive director of Education Trust-New York, said that it’s vital for parents and educators to have data on how students are doing.

“The state assessments are one important piece of information for parents and educators,” Rosenblum said. “Depriving parents of that information does not make learning gaps go away, it just sweeps them under the rug.”

In New York City, the state tests are often a factor for admissions to middle and high schools. About a third of city high schools and a fourth of middle schools screen students using various admissions criteria, including state tests scores. Such screens have become a flashpoint in the fight over how to integrate the city’s largely segregated school system, as criteria like test scores are seen as barriers keeping out many Black and Hispanic students from some of the city’s most elite institutions. Admissions for next year are currently under great debate as the education department rethinks the process, given the upheaval of in-person school and cancellation of the tests in the 2019-20 school year.

Education officials also use growth and proficiency scores on state tests as one way to identify struggling schools in New York. The tests have been tweaked in recent years, which made it tricky to make year-to-year score comparisons. Two years of comparable test data won’t be available until at least 2023, making it tough to measure where students stand academically when considering state standards. State officials were set to overhaul next school year’s tests to align with the “Next Generation Learning Standards,” a revised set of academic standards designed to move away from Common Core. But the pandemic pushed those changes to the spring of 2022.

Some of the letter’s signatories pushed back on the idea that tests are needed this year to measure student progress.

Councilman Mark Treyger, chair of the council’s education committee and a frequent critic of standardized testing, said it’s impossible for teachers to plan curriculum that aligns with testing standards when there are still many unknowns about the fall, such as whether buildings will reopen at all.

Councilman Brad Lander, who is also generally unsupportive of standardized testing, said measuring students right now won’t tell families something they don’t already know.

“I just don’t know how you can make a straight-faced case this year that the tests can do anything but affirm a failure that is dictated by the pandemic, highlight inequalities without giving us any way to improve them, and then put the stress of all that precisely on the kids, families and teachers enduring that,” Lander said.

Read the full letter here.

Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.

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