For millions of students in Illinois, attending school a year into the COVID-19 pandemic still means logging onto a computer or completing assignment packets. Though some students have adjusted well, many others have not had an easy time learning over the past year.
But while the federal government granted Illinois’ request to waive standardized tests last spring, President Joe Biden’s administration rejected the state’s bid this year.
Some state lawmakers are pushing back on the mandate and petitioning the federal government to reconsider.
State Rep. Sue Scherer (D-Decatur) said for schools in her district, the decision to grant waivers last year seemed obvious to them.
“They were like, ‘well of course there’s a waiver, it’s humanly impossible to give the test’. It wasn't even an item to be discussed,” Scherer said. “I really didn't feel it should be an item to be discussed in the current year either.”
Last week, Scherer gathered signatures for a letter she sent to Illinois’ U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth in an attempt to change the federal government’s position on testing students.
“The tests that they’re still wanting us to give are based on the premise that the child has been educated for four full quarters of school, basically the spring of last year and the first three quarters of the current year, and that's just simply not true,” Scherer said. “There's no way to rewrite tests and redo standard deviations and still give tests in a week.”
Proponents of standardized testing say it’s important to establish a baseline in order to determine the academic loss that occurred during the past year, as well as to evaluate the success of innovative teaching techniques which were incorporated in digital classrooms.
“I understand that for some students and school districts this will be difficult to accomplish,” State Rep. Avery Bourne (R-Morrisonville) said during a House Elementary and Secondary Education Committee hearing last week. “But, I do see that there will be value for policymakers at the state and federal level if we’re able to assess kids post-COVID and see how we’re able to help them moving forward.”
Representatives from ISBE last week announced they were in the process of applying for an accountability waiver from the Department of Education. Through this waiver, schools would still be required to administer tests, but they would not be negatively affected by potentially low scores.
State Superintendent Carmen Ayala also said ISBE is working with school districts to make the testing schedule more flexible for the five required tests: the SAT (for grades 11 through 12), IAR (for grades 3 through 8), ACCESS (for English Language Learners), DLM (an alternative assessment for students in special education), and ISA (for grades 5, 8, and 11).
Illinois did decide to waive certain standardized tests usually administered in the spring, like the P-SAT. Additionally, the SAT will not include an essay portion.
“We’ve extended the windows as much as we possibly can and we’re working with each of those separate assessment vendors to be able to provide a spring window and to also be able to provide a fall window,” Ayala said.
Ayala also said failure to administer said tests to students could result in the loss of billions of federal Title I dollars to the state.
Despite these and other accommodations, such as the option for students to come into school on a Saturday or in June to take their respective assessment, Scherer still believes the persistence to require testing is overly burdensome for children who have already been negatively impacted by the pandemic.
“To me that's punishing children instead of offering them flexibility. And it's not only punishing them, but haven't they been through enough,” Scherer said.
Scherer pointed out even if a school district decides to hold their assessments in Fall 2021, those students would then be expected to take another series of difficult tests the following semester.
“If we're not far enough behind as it is, think of how many teaching hours are lost on giving these tests,” Scherer said. “To me, we just can't afford giving up not even a single minute to waste.”