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Editorial: Even in a crisis, school accountability is key

The Detroit News  |  The Detroit News

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos raised the ire of school officials and teachers unions recently when she declined to waive federal testing requirements for the 2020-21 school year. Yet even as schools deal with the pandemic, it’s important for families to know how their schools are doing.

Michigan’s comprehensive standardized test, the M-STEP, given in the spring, is the best way to gauge that, as it offers a way to compare districts around the state. It is also used for teacher evaluations and to highlight which schools need extra intervention from the Michigan Department of Education.  

We understand the unprecedented challenges COVID-19 has presented to schools, teachers, parents and students. And school administrators have clamored for as much leniency as possible from state and federal mandates. That includes State Superintendent Michael Rice and Casandra Ulbrich, president of the State Board of Education, who requested DeVos grant Michigan a waiver from the testing requirement.

At this point, schools have had months to put together learning models, whether reaching students in-person or through online formats. 

Parents have a right to know whether their school’s framework is working. 

Test scores are likely to drop all over the country, following the school closures in the spring that left districts without any time to prepare. It took some schools weeks to begin any instruction at all, and the state Education Department made things worse by initially telling schools that any online instruction wouldn’t count. 

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It does now. And the effectiveness of that instruction should be measured. 

As much as politicians on the left and unions like to hate DeVos, she did grant testing waivers to Michigan and other states in the spring when they asked for relief. 

If she had granted it again, however, that would mean two years in a row without comprehensive, comparative data — something that school advocacy groups say is essential to grading a state’s schools. 

A bipartisan coalition, including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Education Trust, Center for American Program and Foundation for Excellence in Education, sent DeVos a letter in July, advocating for the continuation of testing:

“Statewide summative assessments yield data that serves many important uses, including informing state accountability systems, school report cards, and continuous improvement efforts. Unprecedented disruptions to school routines might require changes to the ways leaders can feasibly use this data to inform decision-making. But, if states do not take the necessary steps to plan for assessment administration, they will have no information on school and system performance to use for any purpose.”

DeVos cited this letter in her response to states, and she went on to offer her department’s resources, including sharing best practices among states. 

Children’s education is just too important to toss accountability aside, regardless of the circumstances.