Feds: States must test students, but can shorten exams, give them remotely and in summer or fall

U.S. Department of Education extends flexibility to states in how and when they give exams but isn’t backing off testing

The U.S. Department of Education extended flexibility to states today in how and when they administer mandated end-of-the-year assessments, including allowing shorter tests that can be given remotely and, in the summer, or even in the fall. The federal agency advised states to blunt the impact of the tests, suggesting the scores not be used in final grades and grade promotion decisions.

However, despite the disruption to schools from the pandemic, the federal agency did not liberate states from administering standardized tests; it will continue to require statewide assessments. Some states, including Georgia, requested waivers that would allow them to forgo standardized testing altogether this year.

As State School Superintendent Richard Woods said last when he announced Georgia was seeking a waiver from the federal testing and accountability mandate, “The middle of a global pandemic is no time for high-stakes tests – especially high-stakes tests that must be administered in person.”

In response to the federal announcement, Georgia Department of Education spokeswoman Meghan Frick said, “While we appreciate the potential flexibility around accountability and school identification, we are extremely disappointed by the approach to testing. Anyone who has heard Superintendent Woods speak about this, or who read his letter published last week as Georgia resubmitted its waiver, knows he disagrees with the conclusion that high-stakes standardized tests are necessary, wise, or feasible in the middle of a pandemic. We are reviewing the information sent to states by US ED and will share more information on our next steps with Georgians in the coming days.”

The head of the American Federation of Teachers echoed Woods’ frustrations with the federal embrace of standardized testing this year.

“As the educators in the classroom, we have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child’s development, nor do they particularly help kids or inform best practices for teaching and learning. That is especially true in these unprecedented times, when students and teachers alike are remaking the school experience in the most unlikely of circumstances,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten.

Although Weingarten praised the U.S. Department of Education for trying to deal with the chaos caused by the pandemic, she said, “While its plan does offer the option for testing modifications and waivers for accountability requirements, which is a start, it misses a huge opportunity to really help our students by allowing the waiver of assessments and the substitution, instead, of locally developed, authentic assessments that could be used by educators and parents as a baseline for work this summer and next year.”

Two parts of the ED announcement that Weingarten called helpful: The announcement students should not be brought back in person just to take a test, and that states requiring additional flexibility in administering such tests will get a fair hearing from the Education Department.

Maintaining that standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are especially unreliable now, Becky Pringle, the president of the National Education Association, said, “High stakes standardized tests administered during the global health crisis should not determine a student’s future, evaluate educators, or punish schools; nor should they come at the expense of precious learning time that students could be spending with their educators. States should use this guidance to work with the educators and the Department of Education to tailor assessments that can actually determine where students are and help design an educational experience that fully supports their academic, social and emotional needs.”

The Council of Chief State School Officers Chief Executive Officer Carissa Moffat Miller issued a statement in response to ED’s announcement: “The COVID-19 pandemic and associated school building closures have presented logistical challenges to giving assessments, and how states collect student learning data may look different this year. We appreciate that the Department will provide flexibility on how to administer statewide assessments and modify accountability systems as state leaders manage the continuing effects of the global pandemic. In addition, we are pleased that the Department has committed to working with states that may need additional flexibilities.”

Here is the letter that Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary, Office of Elementary and Secondary Education, sent today to the Chief State School Officers:

In these challenging times, we at the U.S. Department of Education stand with you and are committed to doing everything in our power to support the students, educators, and schools in your state. Please know that we are grateful for your leadership and for the extraordinary work of educators across the Nation.

I am writing to provide an update on assessment, accountability, and reporting requirements for the 2020-2021 school year. President Biden's first priority is to safely re-open schools and get students back in classrooms, learning face-to-face from teachers with their fellow students. To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need.

We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs. In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing.

State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity. At the same time, it is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students' social, emotional, and academic development.

We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students. The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year:

• Accountability and School Identification. We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year.

This flexibility would explicitly include waiving the requirement that the Academic Achievement indicator be adjusted to account for a participation rate below 95 percent. The state would also not be required to identify schools for comprehensive support and improvement (CSI), targeted support and improvement (TSI), and additional targeted support and improvement (ATSI) based on data from the 2020-2021 school year.

Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021-2022 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022, and ensure transparency to parents and the public, including publicly reporting the percentage of students not assessed, disaggregated by student subgroup.

The Department will follow up shortly with an optional state accountability waiver template. Beyond the scope of these waivers, we also encourage states and school districts to consider other steps within your purview to further reduce the stakes of assessments this year, such as excluding their use from students' final grades and grade promotion decisions.

• Transparency and Public Reporting. It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup (except for reporting related to accountability, such as school ratings).

As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices like laptops or tablets and to high-speed internet at home. Transparency on opportunity to learn measures, such as chronic absenteeism and access to key resources like technology, can help inform decisions about student supports for the 2021-2022 school year and beyond.

State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity. At the same time, it is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students' social, emotional, and academic development.

It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning. We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices. Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test. We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments.

A state should use that flexibility to consider:

Administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments.

Offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or

Extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. That could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. States that elect to extend testing windows should also consider how they can make results available to the public in a timely manner after assessments are administered.