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story.lead_photo.caption Secretary of Education Johnny Key (left) answers a question while Gov. Asa Hutchinson (right) listens during the daily covid-19 press briefing on Wednesday, Aug. 5, 2020, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

The Arkansas Education Association asked Secretary of the Department of Education Johnny Key to suspend standardized testing for the 2020-21 school year in a letter Wednesday, in light of the ongoing public health emergency because of COVID-19.

The Arkansas Education Association asked Secretary of the Department of Education Johnny Key to suspend standardized testing for the 2020-21 school year in a letter Wednesday, in light of the ongoing public health emergency because of COVID-19.

The AEA stated in a press release that they prioritize the health and safety of students, educators and the broader school community, and that it would be detrimental to shift their focus and resources away from achieving that goal.

AEA Executive Director Tracey-Ann Nelson cited some students' lack of participation in Alternative Methods of Instruction since the outbreak of COVID-19 as a reason the association requested the suspension of testing.

"I just think we all need to be so focused on what our students need in terms of health and safety, and prioritize that, Nelson said. "With all of this time that schools have been doing Alternative Methods of Instruction, some kids didn't even participate in AMI. There has been some real learning loss. I think we cannot be operating as usual in all of our spaces and public schools. That was one of the reasons we think there needs to be a moratorium on standardized testing."

"Students need to catch up, and kids are going to be at different levels. Teachers need the time to teach, and we need to be focused on meeting the kids needs academically, as well as health and safety."

In a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Secretary Key addressed the AEA's request.

Key said the federal requirements of standardized testing would prevent the Arkansas Department of Education from taking action on standardized testing, if they intended to.

"We did receive that request (from AEA), but the testing requirement is a federal requirement," he said. "That was waived by the U.S. Department of Education in the spring. At this point, they have not issued any waivers for that. Right now, they are not considering waivers for the mandated testing. So, in Arkansas, we intend to proceed and follow the law. If we don't, then it puts federal dollars at risk, and that's not good for our students."

Upon hearing this quote from Key, Nelson pointed out that there are states around the country that are requesting the waiver for standardized testing, and the AEA wants Arkansas to, as well.

Gov. Hutchinson said he thinks standardized testing is important to measure student's progress under the current conditions of society.

"As governor and someone interested in the education of this state, the testing is very, very important," Hutchinson said. "And you say, 'Well, they might not do well because you were out last year, and we've got a blended environment this year.' The answer is, we need to know the consequence of COVID-19 on our educational system and the progress that students are making. To me, it's an important measuring stick. Secretary Key answered that well, but I wanted to add that I think it's important."

Nelson and the AEA want to take a more engaging approach to catch students up on their schooling, rather than statewide tests.

"I understand the need for understanding where your students are. And that is exactly why we are saying standardized tests need a moratorium," She said. "We need educators to do that for the kids when they're with them, or however the format is that they're engaged in. Kids are going to be in different places, because they have different support in their homes. We need teachers to have the flexibility to assess and do what it takes to intervene to bring those kids up to par."

"I understand the point of view of the governor and the secretary, in terms of looking at the global, 30,000-foot picture of where kids are academically. We want classroom by classroom (intervention) by teachers. There's a difference. We don't ever come at this from a punitive point of view. We just want to see what we can do to support our students, get them back up to snuff and make sure they stay healthy, because if they miss more school, they're going to miss more learning."

Also requested in AEA's letter to Key was the suspension of the Teacher Evaluation and Support System requirements and the requirement of Arkansas history professors to complete developmental hours for the 2020-2021 school year.

The letter states, "During this public health emergency, fidelity to this system requires time and attention that is not feasible if we are to effectively and appropriately navigate this dynamic situation to meet the needs of our students."

The AEA wants professional development time to be spent supporting educators with trauma-informed educational strategies, acknowledging social and emotional health issues and offering virtual and other off-site teaching and learning strategies.

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