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Accountability

Biden Education Team Squashes States’ Push to Nix All Tests but Approves Other Flexibility

By Evie Blad — March 29, 2021 3 min read
A first-grader learns keyboarding skills at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif on March 12, 2015. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.

In decisions it has telegraphed for weeks, the U.S. Department of Education has denied some states’ requests to cancel federally mandated statewide standardized tests for a second consecutive year as they continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The agency denied requests from Georgia and South Carolina to call off the tests in Friday letters to their state schools chiefs.

And it warned Oregon it would not accept a plan to replace year-end test with the results of a survey designed to measure factors like access to educational resources, that can affect students’ learning. However, the Education Department did grant approval to Colorado to reduce the number of its statewide tests.

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Image of a student at a desk.
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“The Department believes that, consistent with the [Every Student Succeeds Act], States should do the best they can to maximize the number of students who are assessed with comparable, reliable, and valid statewide summative assessments,” Ian Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary for policy and programs, wrote in separate letters to the states.

All states were allowed to cancel their tests last year, after massive school shutdowns during the early phases of the coronavirus pandemic. After more than a year of unprecedented disruption, many argued they would need significant flexibility in testing requirements. And, even though the Biden administration said it would not grant “blanket waivers” from testing requirements this year, some requested full cancellations anyway.

While the recent decisions may dash the hopes of groups like teachers’ unions that have called for full cancellation of tests, they may also help provide a road map for other states as they determine how much the department will allow them to change their traditional testing practices.

States have argued such changes are necessary to help them face logistical challenges related to virus precautions and virtual learning and to help reduce testing time. But civil rights groups and some prominent Democratic lawmakers have said testing data is need to monitor for equity concerns and to direct resources as schools seek to address the academic fallout of the pandemic and to direct billions of dollars of federal relief aid.

In what may be a promising sign for some states, Rosenblaum gave Colorado approval to reduce the burden of assessment by testing in only one subject in alternating grades for younger students. Under the plan, the state will administer its mathematics assessments to students in 4th, 6th, and 8th grades, and its reading/language arts assessments to all students in 3rd, 5th, and 7th grades.

The agency also turned down Georgia’s request to replace its statewide tests with local, formative assessments. Michigan has made a similar request, which Rosenblaum has not yet responded to.

Other states have proposed testing demographically representative samples of students, rather than attempting to administer universal assessments. Those requests, and others, have not yet been answered.

But Rosenblaum granted smaller scale requests from more than a dozen states to waive requirements that they ensure at least 95 percent of students are tested, and that they use resulting scores to identify low-performing schools.

Rosenblaum urged states to publicly report assessment data with appropriate context to inform the public about factors like low participation rates and uneven participation across demographic groups that may affect the reliability of scores.

And he encouraged states 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, grade promotion decisions, educator evaluations, and local school ratings.”

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