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Illinois Requests Standardized Testing Waiver, But Biden Administration Says Exams Are Required

SPRINGFIELD – Illinois and other states across the country recently called on the federal government to waive requirements for federally-mandated standardized testing this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a letter published late last month, the Biden administration’s Department of Education wrote that schools must administer the exams, though they won’t be held accountable for the results. 

In a letter sent in early February, Illinois State Superintendent, Carmen Ayala, and the chair of the Illinois State Board of Education, Darren Reisburg, wrote that to “bring students back in-person only to immediately begin state testing will have a detrimental effect on the goals of supporting their social-emotional wellbeing, mental health and reconnection.” They wrote that while 77% of the state’s 852 school districts are now offering some form of in-person instruction, data indicates more than a million students are still learning remotely. 

In addition to Illinois, California, Georgia, Michigan, New Jersey and New York also requested or planned to request waivers for testing requirements. 

Acting assistant secretary for the U.S. Department of Education, Ian Rosenblum, wrote in a letter dated Feb. 22 that “it is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning.” Instead of allowing states to request testing waivers, Rosenblum emphasized the importance of flexibility in the administration of standardized tests, including offering shortened versions of the tests, offering the tests remotely and delaying the exams. 

But Kathi Griffin, president of the Illinois Education Association (IEA), a statewide union, says standardized tests aren’t designed to assess learning loss or academic progress during a pandemic. IEA was one of multiple education-related organizations that supported ISBE’s request to waive testing requirements entirely this year.

“So you’re going to take away teaching and learning time, so that you can administer a test that is not going to give you any data that you can use quickly to make sure that you are addressing the needs of students. It’s illogical, quite honestly,” Griffin says.

She adds that other assessments, including MAP (Measures of Academic Progress), are better at gauging where students are academically.

“I want to emphasize that we are not against testing,” Griffin says. “Teachers invented tests. What we’re against right now, is an invalid standardized test that will not provide results in a timely manner to assist us in addressing learning for students.”

She says the emphasis right now should be on students’ social emotional needs, given that many saw parents and guardians struggle financially this year, lose jobs and some have even lost loved ones to the virus.

“Our kids have experienced that. And our kids are now trying to work through that. So the idea that, welcome back to school, take the test — that’s not what our kids need right now,” Griffin says.

The Biden administration says states can request waivers that mean schools won’t be held accountable for standardized testing results.

Federally-mandated standardized tests are typically administered during the second half of the school year. ISBE has delayed the start of those exams to no sooner than March 15, and the board says it’s working with the federal government to find a path forward.  

Lee Gaines is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

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