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NY, other states won't get blanket waivers from federally required student testing

Union leader and teacher Cordelia Anthony.

Union leader and teacher Cordelia Anthony. Credit: Kendall Rodriguez

President Joe Biden's administration this week underlined its support for resumption of standardized student testing nationwide, a potential blow to states such as New York that were seeking test waivers for the second consecutive year.

In an approach it described as balanced and flexible, the U.S. Education Department released a letter Monday night saying states can apply, as they did last year, for waivers from federal "accountability" rules for schools. Under those rules, schools where large numbers of students fail federally required tests face potential lowering of their academic ratings.

The letter also said that schools still struggling with the COVID-19 pandemic could, in some instances, postpone exams until summer or fall.

However, the federal agency added that it was not accepting applications for blanket waivers from testing itself, as it did last year. New York, New Jersey and some other states recently requested such exemptions, with some citing the safety hazards posed to schools by the pandemic.

"State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity," said the federal letter addressed to state school authorities across the country. "At the same time, it is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-21 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing: keep students, staff and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students' social, emotional, and academic development."

The letter is signed by Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. Rosenblum is a former executive director of Education Trust-New York, a research and advocacy agency that focuses on education of at-risk students.

The U.S. Education Department, in its letter, suggested that states consider a variety of options, such as shortened tests, remote assessment of homebound students, and later testing in the summer or fall of 2021.

In Albany, Emily DeSantis, a spokesperson for the state Education Department, voiced disappointment with the federal decision, adding that her agency would continue discussions with the U.S. department to "find a path forward that is best for the health and safety of all New York's children."

DeSantis added that the state's policymaking Board of Regents in March would consider adopting regulations freeing students from the need to pass state Regents exams in order to earn high school diplomas. This would take some pressure off students, while allowing the state to administer Regents exams as a means of measuring student learning.

DeSantis also raised the possibility that Regents might cancel exams not required by federal law, which include those in the subjects of U.S. and global history.

Gloria Sesso, co-president of the Long Island Council for the Social Studies, said her group would almost certainly oppose any move to exclude history exams from those used in statewide administrations. She noted that Regents exams also were canceled in June.

"I understand the COVID-19 problem," Sesso said. "But if you don't provide student assessments two years in a row, that's scary."

Student testing, required by long-standing federal laws, is one of the most volatile issues in education today, both on Long Island and nationwide. The controversial nature of the issue was highlighted Tuesday morning when an influential statewide teachers union in New York issued a statement blasting the federal announcement.

"In a year that has been anything but standard, mandating that students take standardized tests just doesn't make sense," said Andy Pallotta, president of the New York State United Teachers union.

The NYSUT organization, headquartered in Albany, represents more than 600,000 members statewide.

Cordelia Anthony, a science teacher and local union leader in Farmingdale, agreed that testing could not be delivered uniformly in an educational setting where some students attend schools every day and others on alternating days, while still others work remotely at home full time.

"This is going to be a disaster, in my opinion," Anthony said of the push for renewed testing.

Like other states, New York normally administers federally required tests in English and math to all students in grades three through eight in the spring. It also gives required tests in English, math and science, in the form of Regents exams, to high school students in June.

Such tests were canceled for the 2019-20 school year, and state authorities on Feb. 12 applied to Washington for additional cancellations in 2020-21. State officials emphasized safety concerns in advancing their request. At the time, the state's education commissioner, Betty Rosa, said, "We continue to work with schools to protect the health and well-being of everyone in our schools during this challenging time."

Many U.S. officials, on the other hand, have voiced concern over indications that students have fallen behind academically during the pandemic, especially in math. Those authorities have called for resumption of testing that would reveal areas of special concern. One particular concern is that the pandemic's impact may be felt most in poor, mostly minority communities where students have least access to Wi-Fi connections, laptop computers and other technology needed for at-home instruction.

In addition, officials have noted that the federal government is pouring billions of extra dollars into schools as part of pandemic relief programs, and needs some means of measuring whether the spending is achieving desired results.

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