With schools still in upheaval because of the pandemic, Pennsylvania’s education department should pursue a waiver to cancel standardized tests for the second year, a Chester County lawmaker believes.

“Right now, as we face the tremendous challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and many children are distance learning or doing a hybrid model, the last thing we need to be worried about is standardized testing,” said State Rep. John Lawrence (R., Chester County). “We need to be focused on children’s education and getting kids back to normalcy in a safe way as soon as possible.”

Students in Pennsylvania traditional public and charter schools in third through eighth grade take the PSSAs, and high school juniors are given the Keystone Exams. Overall, there are about 1.5 million students enrolled in the commonwealth’s public schools.

The move to cancel the exams, which are typically administered in the spring, has drawn alarm from a group of local and statewide education organizations, whose leaders have written a letter to the General Assembly, saying the loss of the 2020-21 exams “risks the loss of critical information that would highlight opportunity gaps and help schools learn and improve upon their virtual or hybrid learning systems.”

The letter was signed by the chiefs of groups including the Commonwealth Foundation, Philadelphia School Partnership, Urban League of Philadelphia, Excellent Schools PA, and Pennsylvania Chamber for Business and Industry.

Skipping the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams in the spring made sense, the group said. But doing so for a second year is the wrong move. Tests, they said, are needed to give parents and policymakers clear, objective information about how their schools are doing, and to make plain the learning gaps that COVID-19 caused.

Schools in Pennsylvania, including those in the Philadelphia School District, have improved generally in recent years, the education groups noted, saying they know that because of the state exams. “Unfortunately, when school buildings closed in response to the pandemic and pivoted to online instruction, not only did progress likely stall, but in many cases schools and students may have been pushed off their starting point,” the group wrote in its letter to the legislature.

Still, many parents have reached out to Lawrence, he said, with worries about what administering the tests might mean for their children’s school year.

“They really want their students and their teachers to be able to focus on learning rather than preparing for a test that in this environment is not going to accurately reflect the students' ability to learn or the teachers' ability to teach,” Lawrence said.

Taking a break from testing until there’s less uncertainty in classrooms “is good public policy,” Lawrence said.

Philadelphia City Councilmember Isaiah Thomas concurred. Thomas sent a letter in September to the state education department asking for another year of no PSSAs and Keystone Exams.

“While we must ensure there are data-points to define success and measure competencies, the utility of standardized tests is wrong-minded and not appropriate when you consider the contextual dynamics facing our teachers, administrators and most of all our children,” Thomas wrote.

If an amendment to a bill now making its way through the state legislature passes, the Pennsylvania Department of Education would be directed to apply to the federal government for permission to cancel admission of the PSSAs and Keystone Exams for the 2020-21 school year, if such waivers become available.

The legislation has passed the Assembly and awaits consideration by the Senate, where a previous version gained approval.

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has signaled that she does not expect to make waivers available, but the looming presidential election could change the calculus. Democratic candidate Joe Biden has denounced the effects of standardized testing in schools.