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Bill challenges standardized testing

A bill, passed unanimously in the state House of Representatives, challenges federal priorities for standardized testing for the school year.

Senate Bill 1216, introduced by State Sen. Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-35th District, and passed in the state house by a 202-0 vote on Sept. 29., includes provisions to:

— Permit parents/guardians to opt their children out of state education assessments in 2020-21.

— Postpone implementation of the Keystone Exam graduation requirements and alternate graduation pathways until 2022-23.

— Require Pennsylvania to seek a federal waiver to annual state assessments, should a waiver opportunity be made available this year.

State Sen. Judy Ward, R-Blair, co-sponsor of the bill, said because each school district has had to adapt to unique challenges caused by COVID-19, it would be unfair to expect students to take state standardized tests this year.

“We have more than 500 school districts in the state and each one was different in how it got education out to their students.”

Though the U.S. Department of Education granted a waiver on state standardized testing in the spring, Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said it would not do the same for the 2020-21 school year.

In a Sept. 3 letter to state education departments, DeVos called state assessments “the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school,” which she said helps to inform personalized support to children and transparency in their progress.

Rich Askey, president of the Pennsylvania State Education Association, disputed DeVos’s position in a release Tuesday, saying educators currently use a variety of diagnostic tests and assessments that are “far more helpful to gauging what students need.”

In the letter, DeVos also said she was prepared to work with states to ensure they can “meaningfully assess student performance” during the year, and was open to discuss actions needed to adjust how results of assessments are used in school accountability determinations.

PSEA spokesperson Chris Lilienthal said despite Secretary DeVos’s offer of flexibility, she is still insisting students take “high-stakes standardized tests this school year” while “students are under tremendous stress and educators are stretched thin” working in in-person and online environments.

The U.S. Department of Education could not be reached for comment on the bill, nor on PSEA’s position.

Ward said that as a representative of a rural area where some students are without broadband and some have more support from parents than others, virtual education can cause inequalities in learning, creating challenges in preparing for standardized testing.

“When you’re in a classroom, things are equal, but when you’re not in a classroom, things aren’t equal,” she said.

“Students are not getting the same education they would in a normal school year,” Lilienthal said. “Educators need to be a little more free to focus on students’ needs, including to adjust to new ways of learning.”

The PSEA said it “welcomed” the vote on Senate Bill 1216, which it said places “greater emphasis on student learning over standardized testing” and “sends a clear message that Pennsylvania believes the federal government should work with states to ease standardized testing in 2020-21.”

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