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Feds reject Michigan's plea to cancel state student assessments

Federal education officials have denied Michigan's request to cancel state assessments this school year, clearing the way for the year-end tests to begin next week and leaving some districts scrambling to figure out logistics for giving the exams amid COVID-related building closures.

The U.S. Department of Education issued its decision Tuesday, refusing to waive the federal requirement to administer the state summative assessments like the M-STEP.

State Superintendent Michael Rice pushed for the tests to be canceled during the pandemic, saying COVID-19 disrupted the education of Michigan’s 1.5 million students, many of whom have learned exclusively online for most of the current school year.

On Tuesday, Rice expressed his displeasure with the denial.

"With its decision today to deny Michigan’s request to waive M-STEP testing in the midst of the pandemic, USED continues to demonstrate its disconnect from conditions in public schools in Michigan and across the country," he said in a statement.

"Michigan has the highest rates of recent COVID-19 cases and recent cases per 100,000 in the nation at the moment. Our state legislators and governor had the foresight to require districts to administer benchmark assessments in the fall and in the spring of this school year to provide data to educators and parents and to help target resources, interventions, and supports to students in districts," Rice said.

He noted that federal officials canceled their own assessment — the National Assessment of Educational Progress — in November, an acknowledgement of the pandemic "at that time."

Not everyone in Michigan's education community was upset by the decision. The Education Trust-Midwest applauded the move in a statement from spokeswoman Jennifer Mrozowski.

“The U.S. Department of Education today took an important step in ensuring that Michigan parents, educators and policymakers will have critical data to better understand the impact of this unprecedented period of unfinished learning," she said. "The student assessment data also will be critical to informing how to invest state and federal dollars equitably so that funding is directed where it’s needed most. 

Anticipating the federal refusal to waive the tests, Michigan districts have been busy working out how to give the exams safely amid the pandemic. Most have already scheduled the tests, which include the SAT, PSAT and WorkKeys, for their original testing date next week.

Prior to Tuesday's federal decision, officials at the Michigan Department of Education had said local districts should reschedule the M-STEP and other tests "for a later time" within extended test windows, which this school year extend as late as June 4, depending on the exam.

MDE is allowing for contingency makeup testing for schools that are closed for in-person instruction due to COVID-19 on the primary and/or makeup day of testing

The assessments to be given include M-STEP for students in grades 3-8; PSAT 8/9 for students in 8th grade; MME, including SAT, for students in 11th grade; MI-ACCESS for students receiving special education services in grades 3-8 and 11; and WIDA for students in English learner programs in grades K-12.

The first M-STEP window for grades 5, 8, and 11 is being extended to May 21. The second M-STEP window for grades 3, 4, 6, and 7 and the MIAccess window are being extended to June 4.

Some districts in Macomb County, which were in face-to-face-learning before spring break and have moved to virtual learning through next week because of resurgent COVID-19 spread, are asking students and staff to enter closed school buildings to take the exams.

Amy Hendry, principal at Carter Middle School in Warren, said her district began preparing classrooms last week for 8th graders to take state tests starting Tuesday, moving desks into the school gymnasium and cafeteria and placing them six feet apart for social distancing.

The school, which has been operating in-person, will be closed next week after students moved into remote learning due to COVID-19 precautions after spring break. Still, students are being asked to come in and take tests.

"They have to come to school to take the test. We aren't allowed to give out materials," Henrdy said of the PSAT, which is a paper-and-pencil test.

The week of April 19, middle school students will take the M-STEP in school and are required to bring their own computer since it's an online assessment.

"It's not going to get canceled," Hendry had predicted before the announcement. "It is good to have these routines. If we go two years without it and they go into high school, they need it."

Hendry said schools need flexibility, including a longer window to administer the tests.

"They give us six weeks," she said. "Two months would be better." 

MDE had informed school districts that during the COVID-19 pandemic, it does not support requiring otherwise remote or virtual students to be brought into school solely for the purpose of state assessment.

Districts will have to offer remote or virtual students the opportunity to come into school to take the appropriate state summative assessments but those students will not be required to come into school solely for the exams, the state department told districts in a March 31 memo.

Utica Community Schools Superintendent Robert Monroe said with the remote schedule in place for students the week of April 12, the district is able to provide another important layer in creating a safe testing environment for secondary students.

"The limited attendance during testing days will allow the district to provide appropriate distance between students in combination with all of our established health and safety protocols, including wearing face coverings and the frequent use of disinfectant for all materials being used that day," he said.

"Given our district’s college culture, it is important that our students have the opportunity to participate in the summative assessments that prepare them for postsecondary opportunities," Monroe said. "We have made families with concerns aware that they are not required to have their children not participate in this year’s assessments."

Some districts, like Detroit Public Schools Community District, are taking advantage of the state's permission to push back the assessments.

DPSCD Superintendent Nikolai Vitti said he plans to use the extended test window to have students take state assessments in late April and early May, which means no state tests will be given during the district's two-week pause of in-person learning, which began after spring break when COVID-19 rates in the city jumped.

The district's students taking in-person classes are scheduled to return to classrooms April 19.

"There are students learning online who were willing to come into schools to learn and have already indicated that they will be coming into schools to test, especially high school students," Vitti said. "The two-week pause does not prevent MSTEP, PSAT or SAT testing from occurring."

In other districts where in-person learning is operating during the pandemic, officials are asking that only students taking the tests come to school in-person on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday next week, while students not taking tests stay home to learn remotely.

Dan Durkin, spokesman for the West Bloomfield School District, said his district adjusted its test schedule in late March before spring break to have students come in for state exams next week and have the rest of the student population participate in remote learning at home.

"As far as testing procedures go, we will be using the same mitigation procedures that we have been utilizing during our in-person hybrid model this school year, including physical distancing, mask wearing, and cleaning/sanitizing," Durkin said.

The state Department of Education had argued that locally chosen and administered national benchmark assessments, required by state law last summer for this school year, would be more beneficial in informing parents and educators where children are academically and to help target resources and supports as a result.

But as far back as September, the U.S. Department of Education, then led by Betsy DeVos, had told Michigan and other states not to expect any waivers of state summative exams.

After Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in the November presidential election, Michigan education officials made another request the next month for a test waiver.

Just over a month after Biden became president, the federal Department of Education told states on Feb. 22 they should consider administering a shortened version of statewide assessments, offering remote administration where possible, offering multiple test windows or extending the testing window into the summer or even the start of the 2021-22 school year.

State Board of Education President Casandra Ulbrich said the federal refusal to cancel the summative assessments could harm students who have already struggled during the pandemic.

"Michigan citizens, educators and parents will get virtually no useful and actionable information from this year’s state tests," Ulbrich said. "It would be shameful now if the state legislature used these 'results' to impose negative consequences on children or schools."