U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has informed states that they should not count on getting the same waivers from federal testing mandates for this school year that they got last spring as the pandemic shut down schools.
In a Thursday letter to chief state school officers, DeVos said that these annual, summative assessments in English/language arts, math, and science are “at the very core” of the bipartisan agreement behind the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 education law. And at a time when vulnerable students have been hurt the most by the pandemic, such tests are “among the most reliable tools available to help us understand how children are performing in school.”
“It is now our expectation that states will, in the interest of students, administer summative assessments during the 2020-2021 school year, consistent with the requirements of the law and following the guidance of local health officials,” DeVos wrote. “As a result, you should not anticipate such waivers being granted again.”
DeVos’ letter is not especially surprising. In July, Assistant Secretary for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development Jim Blew told reporters that the Department of Education’s “instinct” at the time was not to give out those waivers again. But DeVos’ letter to states does make it clear what the department’s position is going forward.
Of course, the department’s position could eventually change if Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election. As a candidate, Biden has criticized standardized tests.
The letter does not completely shut the door on such waivers being granted again, since the secretary does not say unequivocally that they won’t be approved again no matter what. But it’s bad news for states like Georgia and Michigan that over the summer indicated their desire for such a waiver.
The letter squares with DeVos’ push for schools to excel during the pandemic without special favors or exemptions from federal mandates.
In the letter, DeVos also says that “necessity is the mother of invention” and that it may be time for states to rethink their traditional assessment systems and consider forms of testing like competency and mastery-based assessments. And she also left some wiggle room for states to change how these tests factor into things such as school ratings, telling states, “We are open to discussions about what, if any, actions may be needed to adjust how the results of assessments are used in your state’s school accountability determinations.”
To support her position, DeVos pointed to groups that have recently called for states to “stay the course” on annual testing despite the impact of the coronavirus on schools. And she highlighted a survey by the Data Quality Campaign from late April and early May showing that 89 percent of parents “are interested in information about how school closures and other COVID-19-related interruptions affected students’ long-term outcomes.”
In statements issued Thursday, Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the chairman and ranking member of the House and Senate education committees, respectively, backed DeVos’ stance. However, they also stressed that for the tests to truly matter, Congress must pass a coronavirus relief bill that helps education. “We’ve got to have data that shows us where we’re falling short so we can better support those students,” Murray said. “But let me be clear—if President Trump and Republicans are in any way serious about ensuring schools can keep our kids learning, they’ve got to stop blocking our bill to finally provide schools with the resources they need.”
Asked for a response to DeVos’ Thursday letter, Carolyn Phenicie, a spokeswoman for the Council of Chief State School Officers, referred us to the group’s statement in July, which read: “We recognize that COVID-19 and its impact on our education system is ever-evolving. CCSSO stands ready to continue supporting every state in navigating these unique circumstances and providing educators with access to the high-quality, relevant tools necessary to measure student academic progress and inform decision-making now and in the future.”
Richard Woods, the state superintendent of Georgia schools, swiftly criticized DeVos’ letter in a statement released Thursday. “It is disappointing, shows a complete disconnect with the realities of the classroom, and will be a detriment to public education,” said Woods, an elected Republican.
Photo: U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos on Capitol Hill earlier this year. -- Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images