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DeVos Announces Broad Waivers From Federal Testing Requirements as Schools Close for Coronavirus

By Evie Blad — March 20, 2020 3 min read
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The U.S. Department of Education announced a broad waiver process Friday that will allow states to bypass all testing requirements included in the Every Student Succeeds Act for the current academic year.

State and district leaders had pushed for increased flexibility as they face unprecedented school closures meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said in a statement. “Students are simply too unlikely to be able to perform their best in this environment. Our actions today provide turnkey flexibilities for state and local leaders to focus on the immediate needs of their students and educators without worrying about federal repercussions.”

ESSA requires states to test students in reading and math in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school. But DeVos has faced broad pressure to take the burden of annual student testing off of schools facing unprecedented challenges. Some states had already moved to cancel testing, without waiting for federal approval.

The Council of Chief State School Officers said Wednesday that it had urged a speedy, simple federal approval process for states to cancel testing as state leaders are focused on urgent issues of student health and well-being, like feeding students who rely on school meals, connecting parents to resources, and providing internet access to families who lack it.

State education leaders are concerned that the results of testing would lack “validity and reliability,” Council of Chief State School Officers Executive Director Carissa Moffat Miller told reporters.

The AASA, the School Superintendents Association, and all of its state affiliates wrote a letter to leaders of congressional education committees, urging them to grant the Education Department“the authority necessary to grant statewide, narrow-in-scope waivers related to assessment and accountability in the context of the current national crisis related to COVID-19.” The organizations pushed for a clear process, consistent across states, that would allow broad testing cancellations.

“With more than three-quarters of our states issuing statewide school closures—closures that are increasingly likely to last the remainder of the school year—it is clear there will be an impact on our ability to comply with assessment and accountability requirements,” the letter said. “We are not asking to step away from our responsibilities to educate our students or not be accountable for their academic progress. We are asking that federal policy and requirements are temporarily adjustable to reflect the unique set of circumstances currently facing our schools.”

See: Education Week’s Map of Coronavirus and School Closures

DeVos had released guidance March 12 that said the Education Department would consider a “targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances.” But that guidance seemed to assume extended closures would be limited to schools and districts in heavily impacted areas.

The same day DeVos released that directive, Ohio became the first state to order its schools closed, starting a domino effect. By the morning of March 19, 41 states had followed. On Tuesday, Kansas became the first to close school buildings for the remainder of the academic year, and other leaders have suggested they may do the same.

You can see the rapid escalation of coronavirus-related school closures in our data visualizations.

Education Week’s complete coverage of the coronavirus and schools

Photo: Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos testifies at a House Appropriations Subcommittee budget hearing in February. --Graeme Sloan/Education Week