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Should schools get to cancel standardized tests this year? | Pro/Con

A Masterman student debates the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District board president.

Hand sanitizers line the hallway at Paul Robeson High School in University City. Philadelphia public schools will complete nearly the entire school year with all-virtual learning.
Hand sanitizers line the hallway at Paul Robeson High School in University City. Philadelphia public schools will complete nearly the entire school year with all-virtual learning.Read moreHeather Khalifa / File Photograph

The Biden administration withdrew one break given to schools last year to survive the pandemic: not having to issue standardized tests, like the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA). The Department of Education informed state leaders Feb. 22 that it won’t allow blanket waivers letting schools off the hook for tests as it did last spring. While federal education officials claim the tests are necessary to “understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning,” some educators, students, and administrators have pushed back that tests are an unhelpful burden during the pandemic.

The Inquirer turned to a Philly student and the school board president of the Unionville-Chadds Ford district to debate: Should schools get to skip state testing another year?

Yes: Standardized testing is wasteful and counterproductive any year.

Mandating standardized testing during the pandemic is wasteful. It’s a waste of state resources. And it’s a waste of valuable class time, for which students and teachers are now starved.

March 8 was the first time in 361 days that any K-2 student in the Philadelphia School District resumed in-person instruction. Let that sink in: Antsy, curious, social kids — at the most critical point in their development — have been forced to sit at home and learn through a Chromebook, over 361 days.

It’s sad. But it’s even sadder that the U.S. Department of Education is requiring that teachers and administrators take weeks out of their new in-person instruction to administer Pennsylvania’s state standardized tests, the PSSAs.

The Pennsylvania Department of Education announced it will not use PSSA scores this year for any “high-stakes purpose, including school improvement designations” — labels that are a residue of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. Instead standardized testing will “assess students as one means of understanding and documenting learning loss.” Essentially, the only purpose of this year’s PSSAs — which, I should mention, cost Pennsylvania’s already meager education budget millions of dollars annually — is to collect data on student performance progress, as mandated by the federal DOE.

But in actuality, we already know that Philly’s students’ learning took a hit (to put it mildly) during the pandemic. On average, K-5 students in the district saw a 6% drop in national percentile rank (NPR), measured by benchmark tests students already have to take, as we transitioned from in-person learning to virtual instruction. First graders alone saw a 14.5% NPR decrease. The data are bleak, but not surprising. Consider that 65% of the district’s students live in poverty, creating a snowball effect of inequity when it comes to virtual learning access and other resources.

» READ MORE: Wake up. Eat. Zoom. Repeat: The daily struggle of virtual high school | Opinion

What the preexisting data show us is exactly what the federal Department of Education has announced they want to test students for: to measure learning loss.

I’m no data scientist, but I think we have our answer: Students simply aren’t learning as much as they were in person. (Which is no surprise to me and my friends, as we’ve bonded over and complained about our difficulties with online learning.)

Many of us have lost an entire year of instruction. I see the next steps not requiring more testing to find the same results. Instead, I see schools using every second of in-person instruction to bring students back up to grade level academically and socially.

“We already know that Philly’s students’ learning took a hit (to put it mildly) during the pandemic.”

Aden Gonzales

Unfortunately, even pre-pandemic, teachers already spent large sums of classroom time and money on standardized test preparation; 60 to 110 hours in highly tested grades, coming to an average of $700 to $1,000 per pupil, according to a 2013 report from the American Federation of Teachers. This was time spent dragging kids away from books to drill thick packets of multiple choice questions. It’s precious school funding that’s desperately needed for reading coaches, guidance counselors, school nurses, building improvements, new textbooks, academic field trips … the list goes on.

Now, with an entire year lost, it’s crunch time in schools. In-person classroom hours are more vital than ever. Due to the city budget deficits caused by the pandemic, surely in the years to come school funding will be spread even thinner. We have lots of work to do. And I don’t think a second or a penny more should be wasted on standardized test preparation or administration — not during the pandemic, or after.

Aden Gonzales is a senior at Masterman High School, a member of the Philly Student Union, and a founder and president of the Bullhorn, Philly’s student newspaper.

No: State testing is a valid benchmark that will help post-pandemic recovery.

Why should school districts administer the PSSA in a pandemic year? For all the reasons we administer them in a normal year, and more. First, we get a valid and a reliable measure of student understanding of our academic standards that are our statewide learning goals. Second, these standardized tests give us accurate information about year to year academic growth, with research showing that PSSA results track with other measures of student achievement.

In this pandemic year, that information is more valuable than ever. It gives us a benchmark that will help educators identify and characterize the impact that COVID-related interruptions have had on our students. It will help us plan for specific interventions in the 2021-22 school year both at the student level and at the school and district level. It will allow us to adjust curriculum and instruction based on identified needs and will help us recoup any pandemic-related learning losses like, say, an especially striking dip in math skills.

» READ MORE: Will PSSA and Keystone exams be canceled for the second year in a row? Some hope so.

Our students, parents, teachers, and the citizens who pay for public education in our commonwealth have both a need to know this information and a right to know it. The PSSAs and the three Keystone Exams taken in high school are still the only independent summative assessments on our learning goals that our K-12 students receive in Pennsylvania. They are the best single measure we have of academic achievement and they are our most important tools for assuring accountability. We need this now more than ever.

Don’t fall for any of the specious criticisms of these tests that you will hear, especially if they come from school leaders who may be more interested in avoiding accountability than in getting vital and actionable information on student achievement and growth. The PSSAs require little or no test prep. Their content has been shortened in recent years, and they can be administered in just a few hours. They should be both low stakes and low stress tests for students as long as their parents, teachers, and principals encourage them and put the tests in context for them, because they influence neither student grades nor advancement nor course placements.

“We [shouldn’t] throw out our most important assessments because we fear that they will identify troubling gaps.”

Jeff Hellrung

This year we have a special advantage of being able to administer the PSSAs near the end of May rather than in mid-April, when there is much course content still to be taught. Our teachers in the Unionville-Chadds Ford district, who have worked so hard to make this year a success in spite of previously unimaginable instructional challenges, have recommended that testing window strongly and we will happily give the PSSAs then. Those teachers want to find out where their students stand after this year that required so much virtual learning. Many of our students, for their part, want to show what they have learned. Taking away this opportunity for our students is like asking them to join a sports team that is not allowed to play any games. Students too want to know how they are doing in school.

Would you destroy your car’s fuel gauge because you fear that you are getting low on gas? Neither should we throw out our most important assessments because we fear that they will identify troubling gaps or shortfalls in the education of our students this year. We need to know about any learning gaps so we can help our students catch up. We owe that to our students, and also to their parents and to the citizens of Pennsylvania.

Jeff Hellrung is school board president in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District.

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