President Joe Biden came into office with millions of kids learning remotely, teachers afraid of getting sick and parents balancing too much at home. Now, they also have to worry about standardized tests.

Biden’s administration surprised some schools last week by resuming standardized testing requirements after a one-year pause. The Education Department is offering substantial “flexibility” to states, but critics see the underlying order as an unwelcome stressor after a chaotic school year.

The conflict puts a new spin on the standardized testing debate, which swelled in classrooms and school board meetings during the Bush and Obama administrations. Biden, by contrast, was a sharp critic of the exams during his presidential campaign. He once told a crowd of educators he’d end the use of standardized tests in public schools and suggested it would be a “big mistake” to attach teacher evaluations to student test scores.

So the Biden administration’s decision to press ahead with testing has irked the national teachers’ unions that supported his candidacy — and left some school leaders and testing skeptics worried any 2021 test results won’t offer a complete, meaningful or fair accounting of how childhood education has really fared during the pandemic.

“We have to be really careful,” said Ryan Stewart, New Mexico’s public education secretary, in an interview. “There are some definite concerns we have with regard to validity and reliability, and we have to be measured in the kinds of conclusions we draw from this year’s assessments.”

Georgia school Superintendent Richard Woods offered harsher criticism.

“I completely disagree with this decision, and believe it shows the continued disconnect between Washington, D.C. and the realities of the classroom,” Woods said in a statement after the administration’s decision to not issue “blanket waivers” for testing requirements, echoing education officials and administrators in California, New York and other states. “I continue to believe that high-stakes standardized tests in the middle of a pandemic are not necessary, wise, or useful.”

Federal authorities are offering states a chance to skip some mandates and also want them to consider shortened tests, online exams or extended testing calendars. States are also discouraged from using exams to determine students’ final grades or whether they’ll advance to the next grade.

“Balancing these priorities is the best approach,” said Ian Rosenblum, the department’s acting assistant secretary of elementary and secondary education, in a statement last week. An array of influential education organizations, civil rights groups and business leaders agree.

Public opinion polls show growing concern about how much academic ground students are losing amid the pandemic, but waiving the tests for a second year would’ve likely given Biden an easy victory with teachers, a solid political base of support in the 2020 election. To educators, the nation is already agonizing over how to reopen schools, narrow technological disparities and bridge uneven approaches to in-person instruction. Some children haven’t been in a classroom in almost a year while others only step on campuses part-time.

“Standardized tests are imperfect measures at best and often provide snapshots of student performance that are far too narrow to help educators in any given year, let alone during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic,” California’s state superintendent of public instruction Tony Thurmond said in a statement last week.

Some education leaders argue that a flexible approach to testing is one way to track student achievement during an unpredictable year.

“Everyone who’s gone through the pandemic in the United States can make sense of why it’s logistically difficult right now to assess students in a standardized way,” said Mike Magee, CEO of the Chiefs for Change education organization. “Taking an approach that gives states an opportunity to create meaningful accommodations for students, and still provide meaningful assessments, is the right approach.”

Several states are moving ahead with testing plans this school year, including Pennsylvania, where officials said they are not currently seeking a government waiver or revising state assessments because of a “moral imperative” to use tests as one way to measure lost learning.

But, acting state education Secretary Noe Ortega said in a letter to federal officials last weekend that the large number of Pennsylvania middle and high schools in online-only mode and “increasing levels of staff quarantine” make it impossible to responsibly conduct tests in the coming weeks. The state plans to let schools hold off testing until later this year, Ortega said, partly to ensure more students participate.

Despite those plans, two Pennsylvania state senators petitioned the White House and Education Department to let states completely off the testing hook this year. California’s state education board voted to request flexibility from the federal government, adding to a list of local authorities that already hoped to skip broad standardized tests this spring.

Tony Thurmond, California’s state superintendent of public instruction, declared that resources dedicated to test-taking could be better spent on helping students recover from a pandemic-sparked crisis.

“Standardized tests are imperfect measures at best and often provide snapshots of student performance that are far too narrow to help educators in any given year, let alone during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic,” Thurmond said last week.

“Even as more schools reopen in the weeks and months ahead, it seems unlikely there is enough time to meaningfully prepare our students for statewide tests,” Thurmond said. Remote testing “is simply not a viable option” for hundreds of thousands of students who still lack home internet access, he said.

One opponent of high-stakes testing said that kind of tension will pressure the White House and Miguel Cardona, who the Senate confirmed as Education secretary this week, to relax even more requirements, or even fuel an enormous movement of families simply opting to pull their kids out of tests entirely this school year.

“The notion of standardized testing is that it’s given to all test takers in a common way based on common opportunities to learn,” said Bob Schaeffer, the interim executive director of the FairTest organization. “All the assumptions that go behind standardized testing are false in 2021, because of pandemic-related learning conditions.”

Overall testing data that emerges this year “will be meaningless,” Schaeffer argued.

Or, perhaps, this year’s test scores will confirm what many educators already know.

“There is no question: We know that children have fallen behind,” New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza said last week, a day before he abruptly resigned from his post.

“As an educator, I would say to parents, there is an opt-out. And if there is ever a time for parents to consider whether that opt-out makes sense for you, this is the time,” Carranza said.

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