A commitment to enforcing federal testing and school accountability requirements for states is necessary to ensure equity as schools plan for recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, a group of 15 civil rights, business, and education organizations said this week.
The groups, which have supported state testing in past policy debates, urged U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona in a Thursday letter to detail his plans for testing for the 2021-22 school year.
“It is more important than ever to collect valid, reliable, comparable, statewide data on student achievement and use that information to help improve low-performing schools and close achievement gaps exacerbated by the pandemic,” said the letter.
The push—from organizations including the Center for American Progress, Chiefs for Change, the National Parents Union, the Education Trust, and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation—follows two years of disruption in school assessment and accountability.
Cardona has given no indication he will consider additional testing waivers for the 2021-22 school year.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, the primary federal K-12 education law, requires states to test certain grades of students annually and to use those test results, along with indicators like graduation rates, to identify and support low-performing schools.
The Education Department gave states a blanket waiver from those requirements in 2020 after schools around the country rapidly switched to remote learning in the early months of the pandemic.
Cardona required states to conduct tests in 2020-21, citing the need for data on student achievement, but he allowed for targeted waivers that allowed them to take steps like delaying testing until the fall and modifying the exams they administered.
The agency also allowed states to wave testing requirements for some districts depending on local circumstances related to the virus, and it also said it wouldn’t enforce rules that limit the number of students who can opt out of testing. As a result, supporters of assessment said they were concerned about the reliability and consistency of 2021 results.
Because of those concerns, and because of continued disruptions from quarantines and remote learning in some areas, Cardona approved in the spring waivers from ESSA’s accountability requirements, which call on states to rate schools and target interventions to the poorest performers.
The organizations that signed Thursday’s letter asked for assurances from Cardona that no ESSA waivers would be granted to states this year.
“Our fear is that the loss of equity guardrails provided by transparent student testing data may result in a return to the days when inequitable outcomes for students of color, English-learners, students with disabilities, and students from low-income backgrounds were easily swept under the rug,” the letter said.
Cardona stressed the importance of data in the spring when he defended his decision to continue student testing even as some lawmakers and teacher groups urged him to allow states to opt out.
As a condition of receiving accountability waivers, states also had to commit 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.”
Federal officials have stressed the importance of in-person learning with appropriate virus precautions. Districts around the country have also pushed to reopen classrooms, but the emergence of the highly contagious COVID-19 Delta variant has already caused quarantines and the temporary return to remote learning in some school systems as they start the school year. Such disruptions could fuel another push for testing flexibility.
Some education groups, including those who signed Thursday’s letter, feared two years of federal waivers would add momentum to an ongoing movement to eliminate or reduce student testing. Leaders of a movement to opt students out of testing hoped the disruption would attract new parents to their movement and fuel their advocacy efforts.
“Now is not the time to open up the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) to rethink the strong assessment requirements of the law,” the letter said. “However, we acknowledge a desire from diverse stakeholders across the country to consider new types of assessment systems and designs. While these discussions get underway and new ideas emerge, the Department of Education needs to remain steadfast in enforcing the requirements of ESSA.”