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Michigan asks feds again to cancel student assessments

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

State education officials have sent a second request to the federal government to cancel state assessments for Michigan schoolchildren, saying a majority of students have received inconsistent or no in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

State superintendent of instruction Michael Rice sent the request on Monday to acting U.S. Secretary of Education Phil Rosenfelt, seeking waivers from assessment and accountability requirements under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

Michigan state school superintendent Michael Rice

"Michigan communities, families, and educators are faced with learning environments that have gone through tremendous upheavals over the past ten months," Rice said in the letter.

"The demands upon our educators, students, and families have been unrelenting. In this extraordinary landscape, we must adjust how we operationalize our commitment to equity by acknowledging the differences in student access to the resources (technology and otherwise) that are needed to provide an adequate opportunity to learn."

Students in Michigan's K-12 school were shut out of buildings last March and sent home for remote learning. Some have returned to buildings for in-person learning and some have not.

Rice said without uniform testing conditions, adequate participation and appropriate test security measures, summative assessment results will "misrepresent achievement within Michigan and undermine confidence" in the state’s assessment and accountability system.

"In the spring of 2021, instructional conditions will still vary across the state in

combinations of at-home, in-person, and hybrid instruction," Rice said. "The foundational conditions for summative assessment cannot be met, which means summative test results will not be reliable, comparable, generalizable, or valid for their intended purposes, especially for high-stakes ESSA-required and ESSA-related accountability."

Rice is resubmitting the request after the U.S. Department of Education under former secretary Betsy DeVos denied the state's requested a waiver for the 2020-21 state assessments last fall.

If approved, the waiver would cancel administration of the Michigan Student Test of Educational Progress, or M-STEP, which is typically given in April and May. It also would suspend an alternate assessment known as MI-Access, English language proficiency assessments, and calculation and reporting using 2020-21 data.

The M-STEP measures proficiency in math, reading, social studies and science for students in grades 3-8 and 11.

Rice said when students return to in-person instruction, the focus should be on teaching and learning and ensuring social and emotional wellness rather than on preparing for and taking state assessments. He also said technology — both devices and connectivity — to support and extend distance learning is not available to all students.

Rice said local benchmark assessments should be prioritized instead.

"Benchmark assessments have long been helpful to local educators across the country. This year, though imperfect as state summative assessments as a rule, these assessments help provide us with an understanding of where children are during the pandemic in the absence of being able to administer state summative assessments with the same rigorous protocols as in past years," Rice said.

Paula Herbart, president of the Michigan Education Association, applauded the department's efforts to obtain the testing waiver.

"The former administration’s denial of an earlier request was a prime example of how tone deaf they were on this issue, and we sincerely hope the new administration will provide Michigan with needed flexibility in these unprecedented times," Herbart said in a statement. “Mandated standardized testing like the M-STEP does not provide educators the data needed to meet individual student learning needs in real time, which is what we need to be laser focused on right now.

Amber Arellano, executive director of the Education Trust-Midwest, disagreed, saying Michigan’s proposal to move away from assessments that measure the impact of the pandemic on education would jeopardize efforts by parents and educators to help students catch up now and in the years to follow.

"During the COVID-19 pandemic, national research suggests millions of students have been falling behind during the disruptions to in-person school since last spring," Arellano said. "Now is the time to face this educational challenge with great transparency and honesty. Without data that helps Michigan parents, stakeholders and policymakers know how Michigan children have been affected during this school year, it would be extraordinarily difficult to address their educational needs and recovery."

MDE is seeking public comment on the waiver request. Any interested party may submit comments by Feb. 12 via email to: MDE-ESSA@Michigan.gov.

jchambers@detroitnews.com