Friday, March 26, 2021

Cardona's Failed Non-Defense Defense of 2021 Testing

USED Secretary Miguel Cardona appeared on All In With Chris Hayes, and while much of the interview centered on the issue of re-opening schools, it also included this exchange:

HAYES: There`s been some controversy around or some debate around standardized testing this year for understandable reasons. Arguments go in both directions, right? One is, you want to have a guidepost to measure precisely the effects we`re talking about, the other is it seems insane to subject schools to standardized -- children to standardized testing given the least standardized year in American history.

500 researchers and scholars wrote a letter to you basically saying, don`t force schools to give standardized tests this pandemic year, that it made no sense. It would exacerbate inequality and produce flawed data. There will be standardized testing this year. Why do you think that`s a good idea?

CARDONA: You know, this is analogous to the decisions, the difficult decisions that leaders had to make last July when we talked about reopening schools. And we know that there`s no one-size-fits-all. You know, when we were thinking about reopening schools, we have very small schools and we have very large schools, and states that had high numbers and states that have very low numbers of COVID. So, there`s no one size fits all.

So the flexibilities that were announced by the department last month, allowed for some of that variance. But let me tell you very clearly, that when we`re pushing out $130 billion state-level data, not necessarily the classroom data, because teachers know where their kids are, but that state- level data is going to ensure that we`re providing the funds to those students who are impacted the most by the pandemic.

We have to be very focused on addressing achievement disparities, opportunity gaps that were exacerbated by this. And those data do help make sure that we`re moving the money and the policies for those students that were affected the most, students of color, students with disabilities who whose impact by this pandemic were greater than many others.

I include Hayes' full question because 1) it's nice to see the letter from 500 scholars being cited and 2) God bless him for calling the testing insane. Because it is. On Twitter, Philly school parents are just catching on that their children will be welcomed back to face-to-face schooling with five days of the Big Standardized Test

But Cardona's defense of his decision is spectacularly uncompelling. Can we break it down?

1) There's no one size fits all about this decision, because there are lots of very different schools. Okay. But this assumes the sale--we only have to care that one size doesn't fit all if we've already decided to make everyone take the test. "There's no one size fits all" could just as easily (maybe more easily) be used to argue that there's no point in giving the test this year.

2) And so we have "flexibilities." Cardona wants to sell this as the department's concession to the whole "one size doesn't fit all" thing, but again--it's an argument made about how to require the Big Standardized Test, not why to require it. And it underlines and exacerbates just how non-standard this year's results will be. Tests taken at wildly different times, in wildly different ways, with the test in some cases truncated, somehow, and given to some less that full collection of students. How will this data be comparable to anything?

3) This is not about classroom data, "because teachers know where their kids are." Well, that's one thing that he has actually gotten right. And yet, there is no plan to try tapping into this vast pool of on-the-ground data. Unlike many test-pushers, Cardona acknowledges that teachers know--but he's still not going to ask them. "Hey, I really like that cute person over there, and I could just ask them if they liked me, too, but instead I'm going to ask their next-door-neighbor's cousin's friend what they think."

4) State-level data are going to "ensure that we're providing the funds to those students who are impacted the most by the pandemic." This is where it really comes off the rails. Is the plan to use BS Test data to determine which state is most impacted? Because the impactification in my part of PA is way different from how the pandemic has impactified Philly. Does he mean that state level data will be used to identify district by district impacts? Does he mean he's after building level data? Because if we're down to building-level data, we're pretty much back to the classroom data he said we didn't need. How does one target students without looking at classrooms? There's just some level of explanation missing here.

5) Very focused on "addressing achievement disparities"! Gah. So test scores. We need to have test scores, so we can focus on test scores. "Opportunity gaps that were exacerbated by this." We need test scores so we can try to raise test scores. Because if  we wanted to address actual opportunity gaps, then we could do that without test scores. We could, for instance, do an infrastructure survey to see which students had the opportunity to learn in a building that is well-maintained with facilities less than a century old. 

6) We need the data to target the "students that were affected the most, students of color, students with disabilities whose impact by this pandemic were greater than many others." And as I've said before, if you're making the argument that Certain Students need to be targeted by the test results but you can already list who those students are, then why do you need the tests? He did the same thing in another setting, arguing "we have to make sure we are laser-focused on addressing inequities that have existed for years"-- but if they have existed for years and we have known about them for years, what will tests given under current circumstances tell us? And by the way--is this data for figuring out pandemic impact or long-standing inequity or what, exactly?

Plus--and this is a huge plus--the BS Tests, even if they do what they claim to do, only assess reading and math. The pandemic has had such a broad impact on students, from the subjects that couldn't be conducted in distance learning (band, welding, etc) to the social and emotional costs. To say that you need the tests so that you can rush out aid to the needed areas is like going into an earthquake-ravaged city and declaring, :"We'll figure out who needs aid by tallying up damage to sidewalks in neighborhoods." It's like triaging the many victims of a major bus accident by saying, "We'll assess need by checking for broken fingernails." 

This is a fail on many levels, but it fails most of all in that it simply does not make a case for subjecting students to the Big Standardized Test in 2021. If the goal was to defend that decision, Cardona simply didn't do it.

Look, I don't expect miracles. The BS Test is enshrined in ESSA, and it will take more than a Presidential magic wand to make it go away for good. But inflicting the test on students this year is a dumb, bad decision that will provide zero benefits for anyone other than the various corporations involved in the billion-dollar testing industry. Well, and the folks waiting to announce that the test results show that US public education is failing and it's time to disrupt it again some more.

What is perhaps most discouraging about Cardona's non-defense defense of the test is that it mostly just echoes the neoliberal Obama-Duncan era of ed reform. We've heard all of these arguments and some of this language before. It was bunk then, and it's bunk now. I was unexcited about Candidate Biden for education because he came with all that Obama baggage, and he didn't seem to have a plan beyond "Betsy DeVos bad." So far nothing has happened to make me change my mind. 


  1. HAYES:
    Secretary Cardona, the last 20 (20!) years of standardized test data has yet to produce any significant improvement in student achievement nor has it appreciably closed the learning gap between children of poverty and children of privilege. Why do you believe that Spring 2021 test scores will accomplish anything different?

    YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada YadaYada.

    Are you at all concerned about the lack of standardized test data in social studies, history, geography, foreign language, music, art, technology, physical education, government, economics, psychology, high school biology, chemistry, physics, geology, astronomy, meteorology, or engineering - the the "E" in STEM?

    Could possibly re-phrase that question Chris?


  3. The only consistent justification I've heard, from the Secretary all the way down to the local level, is "Because money."

  4. Betsy DeVos was unqualified. What's his excuse? I thought everyone hoped that his being Latinx and a former teacher and principal was going to give him the insight and character needed to lead. Too bad he doesn't have the courage. It's always about the money, as Gadfly stated. So what now? What now? Shrug and say, at least he isn't DeVos? She incited rage. Cardona incites sighs of disappointment and resignation? I don't get it. Cardona makes his first move and it's the wrong move. We're disappointed? Then again, perhaps it isn't his move at all. Perhaps he simply does as he is told. FLOTUS is the big advocate we all counted on. What now? Sighs and crickets. No sharp rhetoric for these people. Can't risk making them mad.