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Federal Lawmakers Urge Miguel Cardona to Let States Cancel Tests, Highlighting Discord

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 09, 2021 3 min read
Jamaal Bowman speaks to reporters after voting at a polling station inside Yonkers Middle/High School in Yonkers, N.Y. on June 23, 2020.

A group of congressional Democrats is trying to convince U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to let states nix standardized tests, despite the Biden administration’s decision last month not to consider states’ requests to do so.

The letter from members of both the House and Senate asks Cardona to “provide all states with waivers for all federal testing requirements for this school year.” In addition, the lawmakers say the U.S. Department of Education should focus on other ways to support students and educators during the pandemic.

“Taken together, it becomes clear that this pandemic has exacerbated many of the existing inequities in our public education system,” the lawmakers told Cardona. “As such, our response should not begin with reassessing the situation, but rather with providing the resources schools need to safely reopen and address the learning loss from the past year.”

The pushback from fellow Democrats in Congress shows that the Biden Education Department’s decision last month to grant states waivers from accountability requirements under federal law, but not to allow them to simply cancel mandated standardized exams, remains a controversial issue in the president’s political coalition. The two national teachers’ unions expressed disappointment in the Feb. 22 guidance which included that decision.

Republicans in Congress have also expressed skepticism about the value of the state exams this year. Concerns about the tests focus on the burden they could place on schools, as well as anxieties about the scores’ validity, given remote learning, logistical issues with giving the tests in person, among other issues.

However, the department, several prominent education groups, and others have highlighted the importance of the exams to assess the needs of schools and students, even if accountability requirements won’t apply for this school year.

Despite the Biden administration’s position, at least a few states have since expressed ongoing interest in cancelling or otherwise getting around the federal testing requirements under the Every Student Succeeds Act; others are already moving ahead with plans to administer the tests, however.

And the debate about the wisdom of testing this year highlights longstanding and fundamental disagreements about the value of the tests, which were originally enshrined in the No Child Left Behind Act nearly two decades ago.

The lawmakers who wrote to Cardona were:

  • Rep. Jamaal Bowman of New York
  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York
  • Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts
  • Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota
  • Rep. Thomas Suozzi of New York
  • Rep. Mark Takano of California

Bowman, a former school principal, and Omar belong to what’s known as “the Squad,” a group of progressive members of Congress.

Bowman, Omar, and Takano are on the House education committee. The chairman of that committee, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., is an outspoken supporter of ESSA’s standardized testing requirement, as is Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Senate education panel.

Education Department spokeswoman Kelly S. Leon said the department would respond directly to the lawmakers who wrote the letter. Leon highlighted sections of the Feb. 22 guidance that encouraged states to reduce the impact of tests this year on decisions about student grades and promotions, among other things.

“We believe the purpose of state assessments this year should be to provide information to parents, educators, and the public about student performance and to help target resources and supports—not for accountability,” Leon said in an email.

As education commissioner in Connecticut last year, Cardona announced that his state would proceed with state exams as planned.

In their letter, the lawmakers also asked the department how it would account for the “alarming lack of validity of test data” from this year’s exams, given the ongoing disruptions caused by the pandemic. And they also want to know how the department will help direct resources to the students and schools with the greatest needs without relying solely on results from tests.

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