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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Closures and COVID-19. Perhaps It’s Time to Cancel High-Stakes Testing, Too?

By Peter DeWitt — March 15, 2020 4 min read
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COVID-19 is a global pandemic. This much we already know. We need not go any further than the grocery store to see that people are preparing for the 2-week quarantine, they may or may not experience, to understand that this is a stressful time for anyone living in a country that has been stricken by this virus.

Schools are being hard hit by Covid-19 as well, and that means students are experiencing a major disruption to their learning. UNESCO recently reported that,

Thirty-nine countries have closed schools nationwide, impacting almost 421.4 million children and youth. A further twenty-two countries have implemented localized school closures and, should these closures become nationwide, hundreds of millions of additional learners will experience education disruption.

Across North America, more and more school districts and school boards are making the decision to close school for a few weeks to see if they can help prevent the spread of the virus. This cannot be an easy decision on the part of school leaders, as so many of them worry about the disruption to learning, the inconvenience to parents because of a lack of child care, and the concern over those students who qualify for free and reduced breakfast and lunch.

If we are to learn anything from this crisis, which has created a complete disruption to our lives, and the lives of students, perhaps it’s that we have to work together to understand how this is impacting students and adults in very real ways. For example, Sean Slade from ASCD offers some important insight in his latest blog, which you can read fully here. Slade writes,

While this outbreak is new, we can learn from other societal issues that have impacted school cultures and climate, such as violence and isolation. Common recommendations in response to such issues, also relevant in current crisis, include: Be transparent and communicative with your students, families, and staff. Provide easy avenues for anyone to reach out with concerns and questions. Establish actions and activities to ensure that students and staff feel part of the group/learning community. See the role of a school leader and teacher to be as much one of nurturing as teacher. What the learners and teachers often need in crisis situations are: Reassurance. Sense of belonging and community. To be heard. To have an avenue to raise their concerns and not to have their issue dismissed.

Guidance For Schools?
Many school leaders are receiving guidance from their departments of education, and ministries of education on an hourly or daily basis. This guidance is often deeply impacted by the support of their state leaders. For example, in NY State, Governor Cuomo is trying to be at the forefront of the Coronavirus outbreak, and is supporting important flexibility to schools across the state. Many school leaders cannot make decisions without the guidance and support of state leaders and education departments.

On March 13th (at 4:30 in the afternoon), the NY State Education Department sent out a memo to school leaders from around the state offering important guidance during these uncertain times. The letter begins by stating,

School districts should be engaged in contingency planning to prepare for the outbreak of the Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) occurring in New York State. This virus can spread from person-to-person, and the number of cases detected in the United States and New York is growing. This is an emerging, rapidly evolving situation that may have significant implications for New York communities, including schools, in the coming days and weeks. Districts should be developing response plans and establishing mechanisms for ongoing communications with staff, students, families, and communities.

The letter goes on to offer a great deal of guidance when it comes to attendance, special education students, privacy for students, and the need to make sure that schools are communicating effectively with their communities. The memo also offers a very important message about misconceptions and stereotyping, where they write,

As new information emerges, please remind your community that the risk of COVID-19 is not at all connected to race, ethnicity, or nationality. Stigma will not help to fight the illness. Sharing accurate information during a time of heightened concern is one of the best things we can do to keep rumors and misinformation from spreading.

What About High Stakes Testing?
Unfortunately, at a time when school leaders have so many other more important matters on their minds, high stakes testing is still on their radar, because Spring time means high stakes testing in states across the country. This particular area of guidance isn’t where it needs to be...yet. When it comes to testing the NY State Education Department stated,

In accordance with the USDOE's March 12, 2020 Fact Sheet on Assessments and Accountability, the USDOE: "...generally does not grant statewide waivers of assessment requirements under section 1111(b)(2) of the ESEA. The reason is that assessments provide important information to parents, educators, and the public about how well students are doing at mastering a State's content for each tested grade and subject. In cases where a school has been closed for a period of time, the assessment results still provide useful information about where individual students and groups of students will need support in the following school year. However, due to the unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window, it may not be feasible for a State to administer some or all of its assessments, in which case the Department [USDOE] would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances."

The memo goes on to state,"NYSED will ensure that no school or district is unfairly penalized for closures due to COVID-19.”

Applying for a waiver is clearly a great step for the NY State Education Department. However, they follow-up that guidance with one other piece of important information. NYSED’s memo goes on to say,

NYSED recognizes the current uncertainty of the extent and potential length of school closures as a result of COVID-19 as well as the difficulty for school districts to reschedule state assessments. Therefore, in keeping with the guidance provided by USDOE and to provide as much flexibility as possible for schools. NYSED is extending as much as is feasible the make-up windows for the administration of the Grades 3-8 English Language Arts and Mathematics Tests as well as the scoring windows. Districts or schools that experience closures, but are not closed during the entire testing window, should make use of the full testing windows, including the expanded makeup periods, to administer State assessments to all students."

Many schools around New York State have closed through the end of March, and other schools have closed until April 20th, which means they may be open during the testing window. At this point, schools should not have to worry about testing, and the testing should just be cancelled.

Time For a Change
Given all of the stressors that students, teachers, staff and leaders are under right now, and given the fact that there is still so much we do not know about Covid-19, might education departments, like NY State’s Education Department, take this one step further and cancel the assessments all together for just one year? Schools have enough to worry about, and high stakes testing should not be on their plate of concerns.

While I realize that assessments provide schools with important information about students, instead of providing more stress to schools, wouldn’t it be better for schools to be able to use information they already have, such as locally developed assessments for just one year? Might it actually be a good time for state education departments to review how they test students, and provide a reprieve during this highly difficult time? NYSED is asking schools to relax attendance rules, close school for at least two weeks, and move to online learning, perhaps this is a time to rethink testing requirements as well.

School leaders and teachers are working tirelessly focusing on creating better online learning opportunities, helping families in their communities with the basic needs they are lacking, and assisting with the social-emotional issues that are taking place in their communities. In order to continue to be able to do that important work, we need to take testing, and the stress that comes with it, off their plate.

Peter DeWitt, Ed.D. is the author of several books including his newest release Instructional Leadership: Creating Practice Out Of Theory (Corwin Press. 2020). Connect with him on Twitter or through his YouTube channel.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.