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Could Biden Find a Middle Path on Student Testing During the Pandemic?

By Andrew Ujifusa — December 01, 2020 6 min read
President-elect Joe Biden speaks as Vice President-elect Kamala Harris listens during an event in Wilmington, Del., introducing their nominees and appointees to economic policy posts.
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The appetite for data on how the pandemic has affected student learning will confront the Biden administration with a tough decision: whether to waive the main federal K-12 law’s requirement for annual assessments. While tension is only likely to grow about that choice, it’s worth exploring how the new president could provide states flexibility on this front while still keeping political sensitivities in mind.
First, those recent developments: Last week, the federal government announced a postponement of the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the “nation’s report card,” considered to be the gold standard of assessment in schools. In response, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., the ranking Democrat on the Senate education committee, said this decision made it critical for states to administer exams mandated by the Every Student Succeeds Act.
On Tuesday, a Northwest Evaluation Association study showed a greater toll on students’ academic growth in math than in reading, according to assessments given in the fall. But a host of questions surround the results. Late last month, we also surveyed how states are downplaying the role of standardized exams this year when it comes to student and school accountability.

Giving States Options and Power

Given this complex environment, one option for the Biden team is to offer states targeted waivers from ESSA requirements for these exams, not blanket waivers to cancel the tests like they got last spring. This would give states more control over assessment decisions. (State education leaders have stressed the importance of assessment during the pandemic, although that doesn’t mean they want summative exams like the kind ESSA mandates.) It could also shift political controversy toward states and away from a brand-new Biden Education Department. During President-elect Joe Biden’s campaign, his policy advisors avoided taking a position on the issue.
While states shouldn’t get a green light to just “take a break” from testing and related issues, they should be able to demonstrate a clear plan how they’ll use any assessment data to help students, rather than lean on platitudes about the importance of data, said Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, a nonprofit that studies K-12 assessment and accountability.
Murray and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the chairman of the House education committee, said in a joint statement last week that they “urge the Department to work with states to allow for flexibilities that are consistent with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to maximize student participation.” They don’t suggest what those flexibilities could or should be, although they do say there should be “student level data.”
Even if what states choose to do looks different than what they’ve done in past years, Marion said, “You should have to do something.” And incorporating data about student access to broadband internet and connected devices could play a vital role in how states talk about and address this issue, he noted.
Here’s a list of narrower potential waivers, as well as related testing issues that could come into play, given how ESSA is written.
• Sampling: This would require a waiver of ESSA’s requirement that all students in grades 3-8, and one grade in high school, take certain state exams. Instead, as the term suggests, a sample of students from those grades would take a statewide exam. (The NAEP also relies on samples of students.)
Marion suggested that if the Biden education team grants a waiver and lets states test using student samples, schools should oversample students from groups that have been disproportionately hurt by the pandemic. But sampling students properly can become quite complex and easily disrupted, Marion noted.
• Grade-span testing: This essentially would require the same waiver as sampling, but states using this approach would test only certain grades. Often, this is formulated as one statewide test in a subject in grades 3-5, one in grades 6-8, and one in high school. (Before the No Child Left Behind Act, federal education law required grade-span testing.)
Teachers’ unions have previously backed this idea, which could make the concept more appealing to Biden, who received a lot of support from the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association. But cutting back on the number of grades—or students—tested doesn’t resolve practical challenges of how to administer the tests states do choose to give students, or tests’ effectiveness in measuring student learning during the pandemic and its associated disruptions.
• Ditching the diagnostic: ESSA requires states to use the mandated tests to produce “diagnostic reports” on individual students. For example, a math test with diagnostic information gives not just an overall score, but how a student did in different areas of math like geometry, fractions, and so on.
Giving states waivers from this part of the law could help shorten the tests and efficiently provide some information about where students stand, Marion said. (California has shortened its state assessment this year.) That’s because diagnostic reports require a certain number of test questions on a particular domain to provide enough relevant information. Yet this approach could mean sacrificing some of the more-detailed data on student performance that educators and others might find particularly useful during the pandemic.
• Standards: ESSA says the state tests are supposed to be aligned to the states’ content standards. In theory, the Education Department could waive this requirement. However, states presumably would want exams to have some significant relationship to their standards even if testing itself looks different next spring.
Beyond these technical considerations, the NWEA results underscore that there are different types of assessments out there. Marion, for example, backs curriculum-based assessments to provide the most helpful information about students during the pandemic. But Murray emphasized the need for “state level” tests, and assessments that could provide valuable feedback about students during the pandemic aren’t necessarily designed to be administered on a large scale by states.
Biden himself has criticized high-stakes testing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean he’d oppose any or all federal testing requirements during the pandemic.
Targeted waivers would provide flexibility to states in theory, but not comprehensive answers to serious questions:

  • Would the Biden Education Department offer states the option of not giving ESSA-mandated tests at all in addition to offering up narrower waivers?
  • If states haven’t prepared much or at all for these changes, could they implement them well in a compressed time frame?
  • What arrangements or renegotiations would states have to make with assessment companies or other providers?
  • How would such changes affect students who might take the tests remotely?
  • What if any waivers from ESSA’s accountability requirements would the department grant in addition to any testing flexibility?
  • Would such changes not just make some form of state testing more practical, but also provide useful information for educators and policymakers about students’ academic needs?
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