Ohio schools question state requiring in-person tests during online learning

Even if they’re learning online from home, Ohio’s third-graders will soon be expected to return to school buildings to take a state-mandated reading test, unless legislators act quickly to make an exception to current state law.

a desk with a laptop in a room: Classrooms sit empty for remote instruction at Southwood Elementary School on Oct. 8. Columbus City Schools is preparing to begin letting students return on a hybrid schedule in the coming weeks

© Gaelen Morse/Columbus Dispatch
Classrooms sit empty for remote instruction at Southwood Elementary School on Oct. 8. Columbus City Schools is preparing to begin letting students return on a hybrid schedule in the coming weeks

Representatives of the Ohio 8 coalition, an alliance of superintendents and teachers union presidents from the state’s eight largest school districts, discussed the issue during a call with reporters Friday morning. It highlighted pending legislation that could affect an unprecedented school year hit by COVID-19.

Senate Bill 358, introduced Aug. 27, would waive state testing requirements and direct the Ohio Department of Education to ask for test waivers at the federal level. It would also prohibit the department from issuing annual school district report cards this school year and next. The bipartisan bill has received three hearings, the most-recent on Sept. 23.

More: Senate Bill 358

More: Ohio lawmakers push to lift testing requirements as school resumes amid pandemic

Now the window for administering fall third-grade English and language arts tests, Oct. 19 to Nov. 6, is fast-approaching. The assessment is part of Ohio’s third-grade reading guarantee program, which requires third-graders to master certain literacy skills before they can advance to fourth grade. 

Lawmakers have granted some flexibility this year, so students who don’t earn the required minimum test score won’t necessarily be held back, if their principal and reading teacher agree that other evaluations of their reading skills demonstrate they’re academically prepared for fourth grade. But schools must still administer the test.

The Ohio Department of Education website confirms that “due to technology and test security requirements, there is no option to remotely administer state tests. All testing must occur in-person with a test administrator who is an employee of the district with a license, certificate or permit issued by the Ohio Department of Education.”

Districts such as Cleveland and Dayton, however, will still be learning remotely during those dates. Many parents across Ohio are also electing to keep their children learning online from home, regardless of whether their school districts have started a hybrid of online and in-person learning.

That has school leaders questioning if they’ll realistically be able to test every third-grader — and if they can’t, how useful test data would be in comparing or evaluating districts across the state.

“We have parents who are saying, ‘You’re going to bring my child into a school, but you’re not open? … I’m not bringing my child in for a test,'” said Elizabeth Lolli, superintendent of the Dayton school district. “What do you think my district’s overall scores are going to be on the third-grade reading assessment?”

Canton, along with many school districts in the suburbs of central Ohio, is “hybrid learning.” Others students in Ohio are learning completely face-to-face, while others are fully online.

Communities are also affected differently by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, officials said.

“If we’re forced to test, we’re making erroneous assumptions that all things are equal,” explained Paul Palomba, president of the Canton teachers union, on Friday’s call.

Columbus City Schools plans to begin returning students to buildings part-time on Oct. 19.

They’ll test third-graders in-person Nov. 2, 4, 5 and 6, said Machelle Kline, the district’s chief accountability officer.

School leaders on Friday’s call said they don’t oppose using assessments to guide instruction, but they don’t believe standardized tests should be used to punish districts during these challenging times.

Consistent poor performance on state report cards, for example, can result in the state taking over a district’s operations. The state also uses test to determine if vouchers should be offered to families so students can attend private schools.

More: Ohio (sort of) releases state report cards

Some say the tests shouldn’t be eliminated completely, however, because they’re necessary tools to gauge how far children have fallen behind.

“Figuring out which students were most impacted by school closures would also allow the state to allocate more resources to the areas where the biggest learning losses occurred,” said Chad Aldis, vice president of policy and advocacy at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education-reform think tank, in his testimony as an “interested party” of Senate Bill 358. 

This spring, after Ohio’s school buildings abruptly shuttered amid the emerging coronavirus pandemic, lawmakers granted districts the flexibility now sought in Senate Bill 358. Recently, however, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said it wasn’t likely the federal government would again lift the federal requirements that mandate all but two of the roughly 20 standardized tests given to Ohio students during their K-12 career.

Ohio still released its report cards for the 2019-20 school year last month, but with no overall letter grades and only the bare-bones information that was available. The ratings were not used punitively. 

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This article originally appeared on The Columbus Dispatch: Ohio schools question state requiring in-person tests during online learning

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