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K-12 education leaders seek to cancel state assessments for 2020-21

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Michigan education officials are asking for a federal waiver from state assessments in the 2020-21 school year, after receiving one from last school year.

State Board president Casandra Ulbrich and state superintendent Michael Rice sent U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos a letter on Tuesday saying many students are struggling with the long absence from school due to COVID-19.

“The long absence from in-person instruction will present challenges for many students as they return to class,” Ulbrich said. “The focus should be on tending to children’s immediate needs: physical, socioemotional and academic.”

Rice said given the last three months, students need more time next year to focus on the essential.

“Upon return to school, our focus should be on instruction, supports, the nurturing of students, and safe school environments,” Rice said, “and not on lengthy state summative assessments."

Educators say they support the call for waiving state tests, although a lack of state test scores will mean a lack of state data on how students are performing for two school years in a row for Michigan.

In March, Ulbrich and Rice made a similar request and won approval to waive tests in the 2019-20 school year due to the pandemic. DeVos and the U.S. Department of Education approved the waivers for Michigan and several other states.

On Tuesday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer released guidelines for how Michigan's K-12 schools should reopen in the fall and said her administration would provide $256 million to help districts implement local plans.

Whitmer's executive order requires school districts to adopt a COVID-19 Preparedness and Response Plan to lay out how they will protect students and educators across the various phases of her reopening plan. 

Educators say they support the call for waiving state tests, although a lack of state test scores will mean a lack of state data on how students are performing for two school years in a row for Michigan.

Steve Matthews, superintendent of Novi Community Schools, says that's OK because teachers will be assessing students individually in the classroom to measure their progress and their needs.

"Once students get in classrooms, I have great confidence teachers will be able to identify where the holes are and have a good sense at the classroom level what these students will need to make progress," Matthews said.

Matthews says his district will perform quarterly benchmarking to assess where students are and teachers will do more in-class personal assessments.

"When these students get back into the rhythm of school and build positive relationships, our teachers will be able to get them back on track. Then it would be appropriate to assess students," he said.

Others criticized the move, saying waiving assessments again is a "disastrous move" that would force more kids even further behind.

Brian Gutman, director of external relations at the Education Trust-Midwest, called the present education climate a “high-stakes time for Michigan students” and said it was critical for parents and educators to have “honest information about how their children and students are learning.”

“... It is more important than ever to understand how well our schools are meeting the needs of students and addressing gaps in opportunities and outcomes,” said Gutman. “Regardless of where learning happens, next year will be pivotal for ensuring that every student is provided with the supports that they need to accelerate and succeed.

"Failing to measure and report on learning is a disservice to our students, and especially children who are traditionally underserved by Michigan's inequitable education system: African American, Latino, rural students, English Learners, and students with disabilities.

“It is far too early to cancel assessments for next year. We urge the Michigan Department of Education to rescind this request and provide support to schools and students, while ensuring transparency and accountability for student learning."

Beth DeShone, executive director of the Great Lakes Education Project, a charter school advocacy group that has received funding from west Michigan’s conservative DeVos family, said: “Meeting the needs of Michigan’s students in the coming school year starts with understanding what those needs are, and what gaps have been created during the COVID health crisis.

"Instead of fighting to get students up to speed, Superintendent Rice and Board President Ulbrich are asking the federal government to waive these critical assessments, a disastrous move that would force more kids even further behind."

jchambers@detroitnews.com