Cap Times (Op-ed) Jill Underly: DeVos’ testing plan will hurt public schools amid a pandemic

If you haven’t read the letter that Secretary Betsy DeVos sent to all the chief school officers (or state superintendents), I suggest you do.

In the classic HR memo style of “compliment sandwich,” she tells our state superintendents: don’t expect waivers this spring for the accountability tests, because failing to assess students will “have a lasting effect for years to come.” She further attempts to deflect criticism of this by claiming that “opponents of reform, like labor unions, have already begun to call for the permanent elimination of testing.”

This memo confirms what school leaders like myself have known for years: how out of touch DeVos is with the reality of American education in 2020, and that her priorities are not children or those who staff our public schools. What is most disheartening is that she feigned concern for the “most vulnerable” students but then claimed that testing them is the only way to move forward through this pandemic. There have been numerous opportunities for her to offer assistance to public schools as the secretary of an agency that can help and provide solutions.

Despite lack of help from the feds, public schools stay true to their mission and continue providing virtual or in-person instruction to all the children in their care, supplemental tutoring, and meal delivery. Public schools are the boots on the ground in their communities. In an absence of leadership at the federal level, and in many states as well, public school superintendents, principals and staff (including union leaders) have become the real first responders for social services in their communities.

Individually, I challenge each of us to reflect on our past six months under a pandemic. Without a doubt, each of our lives has been upended in different ways. Some people have lost their jobs, or worse — 190,000 Americans have died. What impact does this have on children in these homes? What does anyone expect the test results to tell us this year? Historically, pandemic or not — high-poverty schools and children without the resources at home will do worse on a standardized test than a child with the best resourced school. Right now, schools are operating either virtually, face-to-face, or a combination of both. There is so much inconsistency not because we choose to educate kids this way, but because public schools are offered no other options. Test results are only valid (if you are using them to compare subjects like she wants to), when they are done in a controlled setting. Do we really need a test to tell us “how school closures affect students”? Parents’ first concern is that their child is well-cared for, safe and happy. I’m certain their test score is not in the top 10.

As a public school veteran administrator, I’m not opposed to testing. There is a time and a place for high-stakes testing and everyone deserves full transparency in how that data is used to make policy decisions. DeVos admits in her memo that information is used to compare schools, and in particular, public schools against private schools. In many states, including Wisconsin, the statewide tests that all public schools must administer are optional for private schools. My hunch is that DeVos is betting that the public schools will do badly on a high stakes test, under stressful conditions, in a pandemic, so that she can then compare the public schools against each other and against well resourced private schools. This will shame the high-poverty schools even more, push vouchers at parents, and amplify her calls for more school choice.

Betsy DeVos and the entire administration she represents have done nothing other than aggravate the situation and try to find a way to villainize your local public school. My sincerest hope is that, due to lack of federal action and direction, each of the states revolts against this letter and demands Congress place a moratorium on statewide accountability testing for the 2020-21 school year, or until we can have a complete school year without pandemonium. 

Real leadership takes real courage and fortitude to do the right thing. Secretary DeVos routinely demonstrates she has neither.

Jill Underly is the superintendent of the Pecatonica Area School District and a candidate for state superintendent.

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