President-elect Joe Biden will differ dramatically from his predecessor on education issues. But there’s one significant policy arena where Biden’s eventual education team could take a cue the Trump administration—if it opts to keep standardized tests in place.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education released guidance about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on state accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. In general, this document is tailored for states considering or reconsidering how they judge schools, and stresses that while there’s certain flexibility for states, there are also clear limits on changing their ESSA plans.
For example, the guidance tells states that while they must still meaningfully differentiate schools by performance, they can change how they identify those schools by amending their state ESSA plans. There’s a similar answer for how states calculate things like graduation rates and academic achievement indicators, and notes that states can seek to adjust the timelines for identifying schools for improvement if they take certain steps. And the guidance has suggestions for how states can adjust their calculations of things like chronic absenteeism.
Despite sections that indicate how states can approach the law differently, this only goes so far. “Assessment, accountability, school identification, and reporting requirements under Title I are not waived for the 2020-2021 school year,” the guidance reminds states. Ruth Ryder, a deputy assistant secretary for state grant and program support, said a separate template states could use to change their accountability systems was part of a “streamlined process” the department was seeking to create for officials.
The department released the guidance before the election, so the document wasn’t intended for Biden per se. And the guidance doesn’t have the same force as ESSA itself, and it might ultimately be discarded. But it highlights a few key issues.
Remember, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos told states last summer not to expect blanket waivers from standardized tests required by ESSA this school year like she did for the previous year; not surprisingly, the October guidance hinges on states administering those tests.
The Biden administration might reverse course and grant those waivers again. Biden criticized high-stakes testing during his campaign, and there are signs that states and other education groups will push the incoming Biden for the waivers again, because they worry about the burden tests could impose on schools and their validity. There’s also long-simmering hostility to the tests to consider.
Yet key Democrats in Congress and other K-12 organizations supported DeVos’ position about not giving waivers for two consecutive years running. They’ll want Biden to hold the line on testing, due to concerns that without such exams and data they can provide, vulnerable students will fall further behind and be ignored.
If the Biden administration keeps the ESSA-mandated exams in place, whoever he appoints as education secretary—due to pressure, personal preferences, or a combination of those factors—might also quickly decide to give states a lot of leeway regarding their accountability systems. That’s where the guidance, in theory, could come in handy.
Groups that have opposed DeVos in the last few years nonetheless have praised the guidance. In a Nov. 20 letter to Ryder, a dozen groups said the guidance “appropriately calls upon states to implement federal equity guardrails established under [ESSA] while allowing time-limited flexibility, where necessary, for states to adapt accountability systems due to COVID-19.” (We highlighted their letter to Ryder last week in our piece on states shedding or otherwise downplaying standardized exams.)
Organizations that sent the letter to Ryder include the National Urban League, UnidosUS, and Education Reform Now. Those groups and others on the letter are far from DeVos’ closest allies. Both the National Urban League and UnidosUS, for example, opposed DeVos’ confirmation as education secretary. And the Council of Parent Attorneys and Advocates has sued DeVos over special education regulations.
The groups’ letter mostly stresses the importance of federally mandated assessments. It spends less time on the flexibility laid out in the guidance, and at the end calls on states, schools, and districts to direct more resources to students in need. There could also be a bunch of thorny issues for states, or other potential flexibility, that the guidance doesn’t address.
Yet in theory, the general approach set out by the guidance could form the basis of a compromise on testing and accountability that might appeal to the Biden team.
It might be relevant here to highlight that Biden’s education transition team is heavy on alumni from President Barack Obama’s administration and teachers’ union staffers. Obama’s team and unions didn’t always see eye to eye, and rhey could disagree on the importance of big issues like the necessity of standardized testing this school year.
Finally, gven the timing of their letter, the groups’ letter to Ryder supporting the recent guidance could easily be read as a message to the incoming Biden administration as well.