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New Mexico asks to skip student testing again this year

February 12, 2021 GMT

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — State officials confirmed Friday they are seeking permission from federal officials to waive standardized reading, math and science testing for another year, citing difficulties stemming from the pandemic.

The request comes as most class and study time is taking place remotely, and public health restrictions make it difficult to conduct thorough testing of math and reading, particularly at younger grade levels.

Teacher advocates have long opposed requirements for standardized testing and say they are even worse in light of the pandemic.

“Students and educators have been surviving a pandemic, and they need to be given the time and space to process the learning that has occurred since in-person schooling stopped,” says Mary Parr-Sanchez, president of the New Mexico National Education Association, a teachers’ union.

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Parr-Sanchez also fears that students who get low results could be held back or denied access to advanced classes unfairly in so-called “high stakes” tests.

Without robust testing, however, policymakers are uncertain if and how much students are falling behind.

The federal waiver request goes against the recommendation of legislative researchers, who in January called for even earlier assessment of students. Without a baseline, they said fall testing won’t provide useful measures of progress. The Legislative Finance Committee estimated that students lost between three and 12 months of academic progress last summer.

The state tests add another layer of objective assessment for parents and policymakers as individual schools changed their internal assessments during the pandemic, including lowering standards. Some New Mexico high schools responded to a fall increase of “F” grades by lowering workloads and changing grading criteria, making it hard for parents to keep track of where their children stand among their peers.

“It is absolutely essential that policymakers (state and federal) come to some understanding of how students are being impacted by the pandemic. A waiver to these standardized tests simply ‘punts’ in terms of any organized efforts to get a data-driven grasp on how much students are learning, if at all,” said Paul J. Gessing, president of the Rio Grande Foundation, a libertarian-leaning think tank.

He added that while testing isn’t the end-all-be-all of K-12 reform, “it is important for the state to move forward with its own previously-scheduled testing regimes.”

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Those regimes were thrown off last spring when the U.S. Department of Education granted an automatic testing waiver to all 50 states because of the pandemic.

In New Mexico, the pandemic also quashed a planned rollout of a major change in state-level assessments, which would have fulfilled a campaign promise by Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to reduce assessment time and decouple student test results from teacher evaluations. The new battery of tests, if implemented, promised to improve the frequency of data to schools and lower the overall testing time per year from around 6 hours to around 9 hours.

If the federal waiver is granted and state tests are not implemented, New Mexico could go up to two years without rigorous statewide testing.

In asking for the waiver, the state Public Education Department argued that state assessments are still practically impossible because of COVID-19.

“As we approach the spring 2021 testing window, New Mexico finds itself in a situation parallel to spring 2020,” Education Secretary Ryan Stewart said earlier this week. “We are requesting this waiver because test data would be invalid given the abbreviated time we’ve had for in-person learning and to prioritize student wellness in a way that high-stress, high-stakes testing does not.”

The difficulties outlined by Stewart reflect nationwide challenges voiced by federal officials in November, who canceled the 2021 National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the “Nation’s Report Card.”

In the last NAEP, New Mexico students ranked 49th in achievement.

In testimony to state legislators late last year, school administrators said they were concerned that parents were helping children too much during the remote assessments, particularly for younger students. In some districts, tests taken at home were relatively high, compared to those taken in person without a parent.

Public Education Department spokeswoman Judy Robinson said the agency will encourage school districts to assess students. But she added: “There is no guarantee it will be a scientifically representative sample if it’s voluntary.”

School districts have been asked to submit a plan on what testing they will implement and when.

Santa Fe Public Schools announced this week it was asking for an extension to submit its plan, as educators focus on increasing in-person learning later this month.

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Attanasio is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. Follow Attanasio on Twitter.