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Testing kids has merit

New York students in grades three through eight

New York students in grades three through eight will take state math tests over the next two weeks. Credit: Newsday/J. Conrad Williams Jr.

When the federal government denied New York’s request to skip the state's standardized tests this year, it wasn’t trying to bolster the argument that standardized tests are useless.

But that’s exactly what it did. By demanding that schools administer exams in a year when learning and opportunity have been so uneven, the results will have to be taken not just with a grain of salt but with an ocean-full. As a result, there's a risk of permanently undermining support for tests that can be highly valuable as diagnostic tools. Overcoming that perception has to be a priority for the state Education Department.

Last year, with COVID-19 raging, Washington wisely granted a similar waiver. It should have again. Instead, schools across Long Island administered unusually short versions of the annual English exams required by federal law for students in grades three through eight. Most students did not even take the April tests, which were full of old and familiar items. State officials said the exams had as few as 24 total questions, most of them old queries from past tests that are also featured widely in practice tests, because it was impossible to field-test new questions during COVID.

Fully remote schools did not open for the tests. Students who were learning remotely but were enrolled in schools offering in-person learning did not have to come in on test day. And students learning in-person could refuse to take the tests, just as so many have for the past several years.

Starting this week, math tests will be given in the same manner. Federally mandated science exams for students in fourth and eighth grades this year are equally slapdash. And shortened Regents exams will be administered but won’t be required for class credit or graduation, with only four of them offered at all — biology, earth science, algebra and English Language Arts.

These tests will generate results that have little meaning, and carry no repercussions: Neither students nor teachers, schools or districts can be faulted or rewarded in any way for this year's results.

So what happens next year, and the year after that?

Let’s start with two true things:

  • Properly designed and administered tests can tell us what students have mastered and where they need work. Seen more broadly, they also can tell us what curriculum and methods of teaching do and do not work, and help tell us, when supplemented by other information, when teachers and schools are excelling or lagging.
  • Poorly designed tests, overtesting, teaching to the test and turning education into rote memorization are legitimately troublesome. They waste class time, stymie excitement and don't teach students what they need to know.

COVID-19 can’t be the reason standardized testing died in New York. It must instead be the opportunity we seize to administer tests that accurately and fairly evaluate student knowledge and help pave the path to proficiency, and excellence.

— The editorial board

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