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Betsy DeVos Says Students Will Need To Take Federal Standardized Tests This Year

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos recently sent a letter to school leaders around the country reminding them that last spring she waved the big federal testing requirements in reading, math and science because nearly all K-12 schools were closed. But this year, she wrote, kids need to take those tests. As NPR's Cory Turner reports, that message has infuriated some people but has also won DeVos a few unlikely allies.

CORY TURNER, BYLINE: In her letter, the education secretary argues these end-of-year tests are one of the most reliable tools we have to tell us what children are learning or what learning they're losing while schools are closed. Michael Petrilli heads the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative-leaning education think tank.

MICHAEL PETRILLI: What needs to happen is for parents and educators to have a valid, reliable measure of how much kids have learned, how much they haven't learned, where they're at.

TURNER: That way, Petrilli says, federal, state and local leaders can figure out...

PETRILLI: Which schools and which kids need the most help. You know, where can we target resources? Where do we need to do a massive tutoring program to get kids caught up?

TURNER: Supporters describe these end-of-year tests as a kind of academic thermometer to tell us which kids are really in trouble, maybe because they don't have laptops or Wi-Fi or because their schools have always been underfunded. That's why, on the issue of testing, DeVos has the backing of some left-leaning civil rights groups who often line up against her.

DENISE FORTE: We think that's the right decision by the secretary.

TURNER: Denise Forte is senior vice president at The Education Trust, a nonprofit that's trying to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color.

FORTE: This kind of data helps to shine a spotlight on those gaps, on those places where students don't have the opportunities that they need.

TURNER: The National Urban League and the National Center for Learning Disabilities also support the return of testing. However, the nation's largest teachers union does not.

BECKY PRINGLE: Everyone in this country knows that our students need more support, more resources.

TURNER: Becky Pringle heads the National Education Association, or NEA.

PRINGLE: We are in the middle of a health and economic crisis. Why would we be focusing on spending money on tests?

TURNER: Pringle talks passionately about how much this pandemic has exploded equity and access gaps for low-income students and children of color. But, she says, these end-of-year tests won't tell schools anything about how these kids are doing until, well, the end of the year.

PRINGLE: We need to know now where our students are so we can design instructions specifically to help their learning right now.

TURNER: Smaller, quicker, more local tests can do that, Pringle says. And focusing on these bigger tests that are still eight months away is a waste of time, she believes. Both sides do agree on the urgency of the problem, though, that millions of vulnerable students are falling further behind. And the longer they're out of school buildings, the harder it will be to make up for all they've lost. Cory Turner, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.