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State Schools Chiefs Push Biden for Wiggle Room on Accountability During Pandemic

By Evie Blad — December 17, 2020 4 min read
Image of students taking a test.

State schools chiefs say it’s necessary to change how they use scores from mandated annual tests during the unprecedented disruption created by the coronavirus pandemic.

And they want assurance that President-elect Joe Biden’s administration will allow them flexibility in how they collect and report assessment data, and how they use it in their federally mandated accountability systems.

State education officials raised the issue in a call with the Biden transition team Wednesday, the Council of Chief State School Officers said in a readout of the call. But the Biden team, which has not committed to full waivers from state testing this year,did not make any promises about how it would proceed. Meanwhile, the outgoing Trump administration has given states some direction on adjusting accountability, but it has also stopped short of offering full waivers.

States are committed to"knowing where students are academically and using data to inform decision-making,” Carissa Moffat Miller, chief executive officer of CCSSO, said in a statement Thursday.

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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.
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.
Andrew Harnik/AP

But the organization wants to work with Biden’s administration on a “streamlined, consistent process that gives states the flexibility they need on accountability measures in the coming year,” the statement said.

“It is critical for state and local education leaders to continue to lead and focus on the aspects of assessment that are most important today in the midst of this pandemic: measuring the academic progress for as many students as possible; transparently reporting those results to students, families and the public; and using the data to inform decision-making,” Moffat Miller said.

That flexibility could build on guidance released by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos in October, said Scott Norton, CCSSO’s deputy executive director of programs. DeVos has said she opposes a full testing waiver, like the one states received in the spring after blanket school closures sparked by the pandemic. But the guidance included a “streamlined process” through which states could inform the department about how the pandemic may affect their accountability plans.

For example, measures that rely on year-over-year growth will not be possible without data from the previous school year, Norton said. In addition, many states incorporated chronic absenteeism into their systems for measuring school quality, and that data has been difficult to track during remote learning.
CCSSO hopes the Biden administration will offer assurance that it will honor the flexibility DeVos extended, Norton said. It could also help by extending the Feb. 1 deadline for states to submit their plans, and it could offer additional flexibility, he said.

“Today, states are moving forward and exploring how to administer their statewide summative assessment to as many students as possible this spring, or exploring other similar important measures,” Moffat Miller said in her statement. “To be successful, students, families, and educators must know the results of this year’s assessment will only be used to drive supports for students.”

The issue is poised to be one of the first education flash points for the incoming administration. Some education officials say the virus has created a host of challenges that will make test scores unreliable indicators for the 2020-21 school year. And it may even be difficult to conduct in-person tests, or to reach required 95 percent participation rates, in areas where remote learning continues. In schools with in-person learning, virus mitigation strategies like social distancing may force administrators to adapt their traditional testing protocols.

But civil rights groups, and some congressional education leaders, have said test data is especially necessary to determine how well schools have served vulnerable students during the national crisis, where learning loss has been a major concern.

“I just think we have a moral responsibility to understand how all of our students are doing, where we are falling short, and we have to use data to make sure that we are doing the right thing and sending the dollars to where they are needed the most,” Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the ranking member of the Senate Education Committee, told Education Week last week. “That’s called education equity.”

Norton, of CCSSO, said that some states, concerned about reliable achievement data, are also measuring “opportunity to learn” indicators to determine where additional resources are most needed. Those could include factors like how many days students in remote learning have access to live instruction, or how many students have access to reliable internet or devices.

Some in the education world, especially those who criticize testing under normal circumstances have pushed even further, saying the Education Department should once again allow cancellation of all state testing.

“Even with flawless rollout of COVID-19-vaccination programs, it is unlikely that all or even a large majority of students will be back to full-time, in-school learning by the end of February,” University of Colorado Boulder Professor Lorrie A. Shepard wrote today in an Education Week opinion piece. “I think a good rule of thumb would be that students should have been back to normal school for at least a month before being asked to spend a week taking state tests.”

As we’ve reported, some states have already sought to downplay standardized tests this year. Texas, for example, has opted to continue its annual STAAR testing, but it won’t use students’ scores to rank schools under its state system.

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