At confirmation hearing, likely education secretary touches on state testing

Miguel Cardona, in guarded comments, says testing requirements likely to remain in place — with more flexibility on details given to states
Credit: (AP Photo/Susan Walsh, Pool)
Education Secretary nominee Miguel Cardona testifies before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee during his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2021.

As New Jersey continues to debate how — and if — students should sit for standardized tests this spring, a confirmation hearing in Washington on Wednesday provided a few clues about what may even be permissible.

Miguel Cardona, the choice for U.S. Education Secretary, came before the Senate education committee for his all-but-certain confirmation, and in a highly anticipated appearance, the first question was about state testing and whether the federal government would require it this year in the heart of the pandemic.

Cardona’s answer was hardly definitive, and he reminded senators that he is not even in office yet. But he indicated the requirement will likely remain but with ample flexibility to states regarding the details.

It’s the feds’ call

Once he’s confirmed, Cardona’s department will have a lot of say on the matter, as it is currently a federal requirement that every state conduct annual testing, and states must apply to the department for any changes.

Last year, the department under former President Donald Trump agreed to requests from states including New Jersey to suspend testing in the early months of the pandemic when all schools were relying on remote instruction.

But if testing will return at all has been a question this year, including in New Jersey. The Murphy administration has said testing will proceed for now, and it plans to submit a proposal to suspend some of the consequences districts may face that are attached to the testing.

Gov. Phil Murphy has also left open the option that he would separately ask for a broader suspension of testing altogether, as several other states have done, including New York and Michigan. Several of New Jersey’s major education groups have called for the suspension, saying state testing would not prove helpful in such a chaotic year and would only add to the burdens on educators and students.

Cardona, the former state education commissioner in Connecticut as well as teacher and administrator, clearly knew the question was coming at his hearing Wednesday and gave something of a stilted answer about whether testing might be suspended. But it hardly seemed definite.

In short, Cardona said some assessments were needed in the face of the widespread disruption in instruction over the past 10 months and the fears there could be significant academic damage, especially in disadvantaged communities where gaps already existed.

Testing to reveal COVID-19 gaps

“If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance,” Cardona said, “it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support and resource allocation in the manner that can best support the closing of the gaps that have been exacerbated due to this pandemic.”

He also provided some caveats, saying he would not support bringing students who have been in remote schooling back into the building just for testing. And he said when it comes to how those tests will be used, Cardona hinted that he would give states wide discretion.

“I feel that states should not only have an opportunity to weigh in on how they plan on implementing (assessments) and what’s best for their students, but also the accountability measures and whether or not those assessments should really be tied into any accountability measures,” he said.

For New Jersey, that hardly settles matters.

The state Department of Education told districts Wednesday that it would seek amendments to its current assessment plan that would suspend most of the accountability measures for districts. Currently, districts in the lowest tiers of student achievement must comply with state directives for improvement.

But others continue to implore Murphy to ask for a waiver of testing entirely. The latest was the Education Law Center, the Newark-based advocacy group that has led the landmark Abbott v. Burke school-equity litigation.

The testing would “further restrict the instructional time and educator interaction available to the state’s most vulnerable students, including students of color, students with disabilities and students from low-income families,” wrote David Sciarra, executive director of the law center.

Sciarra also questioned how the state would even implement the testing with more than 200 districts still in all-remote instruction. The testing is already online, and the state’s guidance to districts said it would allow for such testing from home. But it has yet to address test security and validity in such settings.