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UPDATE: State cancels standardized tests amid pandemic closures

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Standardized tests are canceled in schools statewide for the remainder of the year in response to the coronavirus, the state Department of Education announced Thursday.

These tests include Pennsylvania System of School Assessments, Keystone exams and Pennsylvania Alternate System of Assessments.

"Our school communities are operating within unprecedented conditions,” said state Education Secretary Pedro Rivera in a statement Thursday.

With extraordinary efforts to address student learning, connection and nutrition in a global pandemic, "assessments should not be the focus of school leaders right now," he continued.

The department plans to request the required waivers from the U.S. Department of Education for the federal testing requirement, as federal guidance is administered.

This move came after lawmakers and opponents of high-stakes testing called for the cancellation of statewide standardized testing in light of school district closures caused by the coronavirus.

Students returning from state-mandated school closures on March 30 would have been hurled headfirst into testing season — scheduled to begin April 20 for Pennsylvania System of School Assessments and May 11 for Keystone exams.

"Even if schools are closed for as short as two or three weeks, that loss of learning time and the psychological disruption kids will face will make the tests invalid," said Robert Schaeffer, public education director of FairTest.

The national nonprofit is in favor of standardized tests to measure progress, but not as a main driver of graduation, grade promotion and teacher evaluation, Schaeffer said.

More:York County administrators divided on ditching Keystone exam

The U.S. Department of Education is considering one-year waivers to postpone tests or one-year waivers to not penalize schools that don't reach a 95% participation rate or have regular attendance.

Pennsylvania recently became the latest state where officials hope to cancel this year's exams. 

A handful of states have requested state cancellations or called for federal waivers. Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Texas and Washington have already pulled the plug.

State Senate Education Committee Chairman Wayne Langerholc Jr., R-Richland Township, and ranking minority member Andrew Dinniman, D-West Whiteland Township, both support waiving the tests.

Dinniman last week proposed legislation that would call on the Pennsylvania Department of Education to request a federal waiver.

Legislation for a waiver could pass through the Legislature as a standalone bill or an emergency package, Langerholc said — the latter of which he plans to propose. 

"It's not a partisan issue right now," he said, but about taking any steps necessary to protect the children.

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The use of standardized tests as a primary evaluation requirement for teachers and students has been a hotly contested issue. Dinniman was among those who worked to remove the Keystone exam as a graduation requirement.

Langerholc said he supported SB 751, from state Sen. Ryan Aument, R-Lancaster, to shift some of the weight of assessments onto observation rather than testing. That bill passed through the Senate but remained in the House in 2019.

In light of the coronavirus, Dinniman, Langerholc, Schaeffer and Pennsylvania State Education Association spokeswoman Lauri Lebo — who also supports a waiver — are in agreement that there are bigger concerns now than testing.

“In the face of COVID-19, our focus should be on public health and ensuring that we have adequate and accurate tests for the virus itself, not on worrying about standardized tests or other bureaucratic procedures,” said Dinniman in a statement March 11.

Lebo said PSEA is working with lawmakers and the governor's office to ensure protections for staff pay and student access to mental health and trauma services they'd normally receive at school.

Testing is just another burden to add to their plates.

"The goal is to alleviate some of the stressors," Lebo said. "Why would anyone want to put that extra stress on students and their parents if it could be avoided?"

More:'We're not isolated, look at us': York County residents adjust to social distancing

There's also the question of whether students could be held accountable for their scores should they be tested this spring — considering not all districts have provided online instruction and not all have access.

Local districts are looking to the state Education Department for guidance, but York Suburban and Northern York County school district officials said they would be in favor of a waiver.

"Considering that we are going to lose at least 10 days of instruction as it is, I would prefer to forego standardized testing this year so that time may be used for actual instruction," York Suburban Superintendent Timothy Williams said in an email Wednesday.

"Each day we test students is a lost day of instruction," he said.

Though states cannot cancel testing until approved by the federal government, Schaeffer doubts there will be much federal enforcement, saying, "If you have no kids in school, who do you test?"

It would be "political suicide" to penalize these states in a time of crisis, he said.