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School districts put to the test with statewide exams. But, could students soon catch a break?

The annual statewide exams that are normally given in person are posing a big challenge to school districts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — Statewide tests like the Keystone exam and the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment are normally given in person before the end of every school year. But during a pandemic that poses a real problem to school districts especially as many of them remain virtual or functioning under a hybrid model. 

"Right now the district has 2800 students who are virtual. So, trying to get those students tested, trying to bring them in, because right now we have to test everyone face-to-face would be a real challenge for us," said Cumberland Valley School District superintendent Dr. David Christopher who also noted the pandemic poses a problem on where and how to seat students during the multi-hour tests. 

The US Department of Education has not yet waived requirements for the testing but it is facing increasing pressure to do so as two state leaders even made a bipartisan pitch to President Joe Biden to get the requirements changed.

"It's absolutely time sensitive from the standpoint that it will not be logistically easy,"  said Republican PA Senator Scott Martin, who is Majority Chair of the Education Committee. Sen. Martin teamed up with Minority Chair, Democrat Sen. Lindsey Williams, to draft the letter which asks to waive the standardized testing requirement for the 2020/2021 school year.

"I would categorize it as a logistical nightmare to try to organize this many kids back into their school physically. They can’t do it all at once. They don’t have the space to do it," said Sen. Martin who added, "with graduation only two months away, little more than, I don’t know how they’re going to be able to pull this off in a short period of time."

Meantime, Pennsylvania's Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega is also drafting a letter to send to the US Department of Education. In that letter, Ortega notes that he understands testing is a federal requirement as results determine things such as prioritization of schools for support and intervention. However, the PA Dept. of Education notes it's a high task to balance the requirements of the testing with the pandemic's health and safety guidelines.

"It doesn't make any sense to me why we would try to test kids this spring," said Dr. Christopher who said his district will have to wait to see what the US Department of Education decides on the testing before making final plans. "I think these kids have been through a lot and for them to come in and potentially have to sit for a couple weeks and do a PSSA exam or a Keystone exam just doesn't make any sense to me"

Currently, the US Dept. of Education has only issued guidance to states regarding the testing which includes:

  • Extending the testing window and moving assessments to the summer or fall,
  • Giving the assessment remotely, where feasible,
  • Shortening the state assessment, to make testing more feasible to implement and prioritize in-person learning time.

It said it also recognizes that individual states may need additional assessment flexibility but it's prepared to work with states to address their individual needs and conditions while ensuring the maximum available statewide data to inform the targeting of resources and support.

Read more from the US Dept. Of Education

"Our goal should be to try to re-engage our students in school to ensure that their mental health is where it needs to be and to get them ready to come back to school in the fall," Dr. Christopher said. "I think that's much more important than having them sit for a couple of weeks for testing."