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Let schools skip testing this year

Oregon schools are just getting back to in-person instruction for those students who want it, with most local districts aiming to offer full-time school for all students starting April 12. So it made sense for state education officials to seek a waiver from standardized testing this spring. But the initial response from the U.S. Department of Education was to say no.

Federal rules require states to administer the same standard tests to public school students in reading/language arts, mathematics and science, and to report the results on students’ report cards.

Because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on instruction this year, the Oregon Department of Education asked for a waiver of that requirement. Local districts would have the option of administering tests, but the state would not require it or report results.

The Ashland School District already announced its intention to offer testing on an opt-in basis, testing students only if their parents requested it.

Standardized assessments have historically been the subject of some controversy, with educators chafing at having to “teach to the test” and districts concerned that they would be penalized if their students didn’t show adequate progress in core subjects. The tests do have value in that they indicate areas where improvement is needed in specific subject matter or curriculum.

But after a year like no other, where some students were taught remotely while others received at least some in-person instruction, requiring standardized testing seems an unnecessary burden. There is little time left before the school year ends, and devoting time and staff resources to testing will only take away from restoring some semblance of a normal school experience.

State education officials point out that schools can’t provide ideal test-taking conditions this year, and administering tests to students at home presents problems. As a result, they say, test results won’t be reliable.

Students who had to connect with their teachers via a computer link for months shouldn’t be pressured to perform on standard assessments when their school year has been anything but standard.

The federal response to Oregon’s waiver request is not final — the letter from the Education Department called it “initial feedback,” and promised to work with the state on a plan.

Given the unprecedented effects of the pandemic on schools, evaluating its effects on student learning is vitally important. School officials need to know whether their distance learning efforts were successful and how they might be improved during future public health emergencies. So at some point, student progress must be measured. But that time is not now.

Federal officials should grant Oregon’s requested waiver and help plan for comprhensive testing next year, when schools are not scrambling to restore in-person instruction on the fly.