How waivers could be the hundred-and-first blow against testing

How waivers could be the hundred-and-first blow against testing

By Dale Chu

With Miguel Cardona’s confirmation and installation as the nation’s next education secretary imminent, it’s worth reviewing the stakes attached to one of the most immediate and consequential decisions he will have to make: Whether to offer testing waivers to states for a second consecutive year. More than a handful (i.e., GA, MI, MT, NM, NY, OR, SC) have already submitted a waiver request or signaled their intent do so. If Cardona caves to their pleas, expect the floodgates to be thrown wide open.

While there’s been a cacophony of noise in the back and forth between pro- and anti-testing forces, what’s easily lost are the two key points about this debate: (1) the importance of state leadership and (2) the long-term implications for state testing writ large.

On the first point, a waiver from Cardona would be the path of least resistance and the politically expedient one. It would provide the cover weak-kneed state officials have been seeking to forgo testing once again. However, the decision to cancel state testing rests with state leaders regardless of what the feds do. To wit, Texas and Arkansas have strongly and commendably affirmed their commitment to testing, with Texas Commissioner Mike Morath providing a strong example of state leadership on this issue. Not to be outdone, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey just signed legislation that protects standardized testing and also issued an executive order directing the state to use the data to study learning loss.

Leadership is also what’s required to address the second point, which is that there is a larger, arguably more sinister, plotline to this fight. Indeed, testing opponents consider another round of waivers merely an appetizer to the main course, one that yields a more permanent result: A reauthorization of the federal education law that eliminates the annual testing requirement. This would be a fitting denouement for those who were clamoring to cancel state testing long before the pandemic took hold.

The dire straits in which testing and data proponents find themselves in now calls to my mind the stonecutter’s credo:

Look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred-and-first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it, but all that had gone before.

There may not be much left to do about the 2021 assessments in the here and now, but it saddens me to think how future policymakers might trace a future dearth of data and transparency back to this moment in history.

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