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Michigan schools must issue mandatory testing despite pandemic

"We should not be penalizing schools, districts or teachers for a global pandemic that may have a negative impact on our ability to administer these assessments."

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Michigan continues to experience a surge in COVID-19 cases, especially among young people. As a result, many schools have decided to go virtual amid the rising cases.

Despite the intense surge in outbreaks here in Michigan, students are still required to take federally mandated standardized tests. This has frustrated school leaders across West Michigan. 

"We were under pressure because of these mandated assessments that are still required currently, even in the midst of a global pandemic. We were bringing in 100% of high school students in that grade level to take this test at a time when the COVID positivity rate is the highest in the nation and among the highest in the state of Michigan here in Kent County," said John Helmholdt, executive director of Communications and External Affairs for Grand Rapids Public Schools. 

"So again, this doesn't make sense. This defies logic, and unfortunately that threatens, not only the impact of grades, assessments and accountability, but now it's also an impact, potentially, in the health, safety and well-being of students who are being required to come from there 100% virtual instruction into the building to take a one-size-fits-all test that is not valid or reliable."

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Michigan is mandated by federal law to assess student performance in core subjects. The assessments 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. 

"We believe in evaluation. We believe in assessment, transparency and data. Just, in the middle of a global pandemic, we need to hit the pause button because the data is not valid or reliable," says Helmholdt. "We can re-commence those high stakes assessments and use that data in the future once we are back to some degree of normalcy."

The Michigan Department of Education submitted a request earlier this year to the United States Department of Education (USED) to waive the federally-required spring 2021 assessments

The U.S. Department of Education denied the request to waive administering the test; however, it did grant MDE's request to waive 2020-21 federal school accountability requirements.

That means:

• The MDE will not be required to calculate and report the results of Michigan's federal school accountability system: the Michigan School Index for the 2020-21 school year.

• The MDE will not be required to identify schools for Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI), Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI), or Additional Targeted Support (ATS) based on 2020-21 school year data.

• The MDE will still be required to publish the Annual Education Report (AER) which will include aggregated proficiency and participation rates.

• The MDE will still be required to report on chronic absenteeism (an element of the Michigan School Index) despite School Index reports otherwise being waived.

• The MDE will still be required to calculate and report Michigan School Grades as required by state law; currently not waived by the Governor and Legislature.

According to the MDE , it also means:

• Schools are expected to administer the state assessments.

• Schools that are 100% virtual/remote must offer testing just as traditional/in-person schools do with physical locations available for students to be present for testing as desired.

• Districts must offer remote or virtual students the opportunity to take the appropriate state assessments.

• Remote-only students are not required to come into school for the sole purpose of taking the assessments.

The testing window for administering the tests are as follows: April 12 through May 21 for grade 5, 8 and 11; April 26 through the May 4 for grades 3,4,6 and 7; and April 12 through 21 for PSAT for grade 8.

All of these dates coincide with efforts to reduce COVID exposure, especially among the younger, often unvaccinated population.

"Remote test administration is not an option. So this is part of that challenge. We have families that have said 'we're not comfortable sending our children or child to school, in-person yet,'" says Helmholdt. "40% of our students are still 100% virtual. This is going to be part of the challenge. This is also one of the reasons why this data is not valid or reliable. We are not going to get 95% participation. We barely got 75% participation in our MAP test administration; and, so that is the reality."

Helmholdt says, unfortunately, another reality is that test results could adversely impact teacher evaluations.

"40% of a teacher's evaluation is based on student growth. This is not the time for us to be using this unreliable and invalid data for evaluations. The same is true for the third grade reading law. Students, we believe, should not be penalized due to a global pandemic that may have adversely impacted their assessments," he said. "This has not been a traditional year of teaching and learning. And, no student, no teacher, no school should be penalized for that."

He says Michigan lawmakers are currently working on legislation that would temporarily halt using data from standardized tests to evaluate students for the current school year.

"We are still working on legislation in Lansing to ensure there's a temporary one-year pause on both the assessments for educator evaluation, and for third grade reading law. We have met with the chairs of the House and the Senate Education Committee. We're continuing to make the case to lawmakers about why this data should or should not be used as part of high stakes assessment and evaluation," says Helmholdt. 

"These bills have been introduced. They are in committee. They are being debated, and so both members of the House and Senate need to hear from their constituents about their opinions on this."

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