The U.S. Department of Education granted its first broad waiver from testing requirements— to the District of Columbia for this school year, citing the large share of students learning remotely and concerns about safely administering exams.
In a series of response letters to states that had sought flexibility from the assessment requirements of the Every Student Succeeds Act Tuesday, the agency rejected a request from New York state to cancel assessments. And it turned down proposals from Michigan and Montana to substitute local tests for state ones.
The Education Department also approved a request from Oregon to reduce the number of statewide tests it will give this year. Under the plan, the state will test students in 4th, 7th, 8th, and 11th grades in math; students in 3rd, 6th, 7th, and 11th grades in language arts; and students in 5th and 8th grades in science. The federal agency previously approved a similar plan for Colorado late last month.
The latest round of waiver decisions comes as states consider how best to administer federally mandated assessments and to address the logistical challenges caused by the pandemic. Some have considered delaying tests to the fall or shortening the exams.
The department’s waiver for the District of Columbia schools is striking because in February, Biden’s education team said it was not considering granting “blanket waivers” from ESSA’s testing requirements. However, acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ian Rosenblum also said at the time that the department was open to discussing additional flexibility from standard testing requirements on a case-by-case basis with states.
Rosenblum also announced that states could seek waivers from requirements that they identify low-performing schools and require at least 95 percent of students to take year-end assessments. The department has since swiftly approved such waiver requests.
That decision sharply divided opinion. Supporters said it struck the right balance because it ensured there will be useful data about where schools and students stand, while removing the pressure of accountability mandates. Critics charged that the tests won’t actually provide information that will help educators and students, and will only create problems and stress for schools that are already struggling with the pandemic’s challenges.
Last month, the department rejected requests from Georgia and South Carolina to call off their state exams.
Even after the department announced its general position on testing, some states said they planned to seek some kind of flexibility that would dramatically reduce if not eliminate state testing requirements.
District of Columbia officials told the federal agency that 88 percent of students were learning remotely as of March 20, Rosenblum noted in his letter approving the District’s request.
“As a result, very few students would be able to be assessed in person this spring,” he wrote. “This would also likely result in [the D.C. education agency] not being able to report much, if any, data due to [its] minimum subgroup size for reporting and the need to protect personally identifiable information.”
Rosenblum has said students should not be expected to report to a school building for the sole purpose of taking an exam in-person.
Scott Marion, the president of the Center for Assessment, criticized the department’s approach.
Michigan, he said, has a right to be aggrieved after seeing its own waiver request turned down but the District of Columbia’s approved, given the recent spike in coronavirus cases in the state and the decision by Detroit schools and other Michigan districts to shift back to remote learning this week.
“The logic eludes me,” Marion said. “I see tremendous inconsistency in what the feds are approving and not approving.”
ESSA says states must administer tests in English/language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, as well as science tests in certain grade levels. States must also give annual English-language proficiency tests for English-language learners. All 50 states, D.C., and Puerto Rico received waivers from statewide tests for the 2019-20 school year.
The latest testing waiver activity for each state
Here’s a breakdown of the department’s response to waiver requests from several states.
California—The department told California officials they don’t need a waiver because they plan to administer the state summative tests except in districts where it is “not viable” to do so because of the pandemic. In a footnote, the letter says this flexibility does not give districts the option to select a local, formative test in place of the statewide exam.
Washington, D.C.—Rosenblum granted a waiver from year-end testing requirements. D.C. officials still plan to administer English-language proficiency tests.
Michigan—The Education Department denied Michigan’s request to let districts use results from local “benchmark” assessments in place of scores from a statewide test.
The state already requires districts to select and administer local formative tests, Michigan had noted in its request. But Rosenblum said they would not be a sufficient stand-in for the official state assessment.
“In cases where students are unable to take the statewide summative assessment, we hope that States and school districts use other assessments to measure student learning and progress and to provide information to parents and educators,” Rosenblum wrote. “The benchmark assessments available to Michigan LEAs do not replace statewide summative assessments, but they can serve to provide valuable information to meet our goal of maximizing the number of students for whom we have quality data this year.”
Montana—The department denied Montana’s request to allow districts to administer their local interim assessments in place of the state summative assessments.
New Jersey—The department told New Jersey education officials that the state does not need a waiver to carry out its plan to administer a shortened version of state tests in the fall, rather than the spring. That test, part of New Jersey’s “Strong Start” initiative, is built on the same framework as the state’s traditional assessments, Rosenblum noted in his letter.
“As part of this request, NJDOE noted that its “Strong Start” initiative will include a shortened version of its reading/language arts, mathematics, and science assessments in the fall.”
New York—The department denied New York’s request to cancel state assessments, saying it hadn’t provided appropriate justification to do so.
“The Department has provided flexibility for States to administer assessments in ways that support students and educators during this unprecedented period as part of our commitment to effectively address existing and increased gaps in opportunity exacerbated by the pandemic,” the denial letter said.
In his letter to state officials, Rosenblum acknowledged that there may be circumstances were students are unable to take tests, and he encouraged New York to use other measures to provide information about academic performance in those cases.
Oregon—The Education Department approved Oregon’s plan to reduce assessment time by testing students in certain subjects in certain grades, rather than testing students of all ages in all subjects.
Washington—Rosenblum offered Washington preliminary feedback, saying the Education Department would not support its plan to reduce testing in part by administering a survey to students in grades 6 through 12 that “focuses on remote learning experiences, mental and physical health, COVID-19 precautions, and social supports during the pandemic.”
The state has also proposed testing representative samples of students, rather than seeking universal participation in assessments, and reducing overall assessment time by administering tests in fewer subject areas for each grade.