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Assessment

Biden Administration’s Level of Tolerance for Cutting Standardized Tests Comes Into Focus

By Andrew Ujifusa — April 23, 2021 8 min read
Image of a test sheet.

Recent correspondence and decisions involving the U.S. Department of Education and states have provided some clarity about just how flexible the Biden administration is willing to be when it comes to whether states should or must give standardized exams. And there’s disagreement about how well their approach is playing out.

One key marker federal officials have set down: The Education Department has proven sympathetic to reducing the number of grades in which students take the tests this year, but less enamored of reducing the number of students tested in each grade. And the department has rejected the idea of substituting local assessments for statewide ones.

In addition, a disconnect has emerged between the federal government requiring states to offer their tests, and districts’ power to exempt students from taking them.

These decisions have followed the department’s controversial late February announcement that states would still have to administer federally mandated tests. Teachers’ unions and testing skeptics reacted with disappointment and anger to the department’s stance, which combined with the past year has reenergized debates about the long-term fate of the tests and their mandated role in accountability systems.

However, the department did promise to work with states on additional flexibility about testing, a pledge that some states responded to quickly.

Eventually, the department granted a broad testing waiver in early April to the District of Columbia that means students there won’t take most required exams for this year. (District public schools are still administering English-language proficiency exams required by the Every Student Succeeds Act.)

That decision tracked with what U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona told senators in his confirmation hearing that students shouldn’t be brought back into buildings just to take the exams. In its waiver request, D.C. said that 88 percent of its students were remote as of March 20. The department in turn, noted this figure in approving D.C.'s request. Yet the department shot down efforts by states like Michigan, Montana, and New York to obtain significant relief from testing that involved eliminating or replacing statewide tests.

“There’s a sense in which each one is almost being taken like it’s own law case. And it’s: How good was your argument?” said Derek C. Briggs, a University of Colorado professor who studies assessment and who noted the department seems to have demonstrated sensitivity to arguments from different sides. “You can sort of argue that with D.C., they made such a compelling case on a variety of grounds, whereas New York’s case wasn’t deemed compelling in the same way.”

The time for states to make their case for nixing tests this spring is likely at or near an end. And the department’s stance on tests may have preemptively curbed states’ interest in flexibility: Of roughly 40 states that responded to questions from Education Week about federally mandated testing last month, 30 indicated that they had no plans to seek blanket waivers. Many states might have still decided to test, of course, even if the Biden administration had explicitly offered blanket waivers.

Paige Kowalski, the executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, which backs efforts to use accurate information in policymaking, said Cardona’s comments about in-person student testing and the small geographic and enrollment footprint of D.C.'s school system made its waiver understandable.

Yet in many instances, she argued, people paid too much attention to Education Department decisions and not enough to states.

“Every flexibility in the world was offered to states, except that they had to give the tests,” Kowalski said. “And even that wasn’t enough for states.”

Two stories of testing waivers from the Pacific Northwest

The department’s disparate responses to Oregon and Washington state might illustrate the limit of the department’s flexibility on testing.

On April 6, the department allowed Oregon to reduce overall testing; the state will administer state tests only to students in certain grades. In March, the department also gave the green light to Colorado’s pitch to reduce the number of tested grades.

However, on the same day, the department indicated to Washington state in preliminary feedback that it would reject the state’s waiver proposal. Like Oregon, Washington state wanted to reduce the testing regimen by administering exams only in certain grades. Unlike Oregon, Washington state proposed to test a sample of students in those grades.

Crucially, in the eyes of acting Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education Ian Rosenblum, Washington state’s plan would provide statewide data that could be disaggregated by student subgroups as required by federal law, but not more granular information. Rosenblum wrote to Washington state Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal that this approach, together with a student survey, “should complement and not replace the data from statewide summative assessments that provide information on student learning at the individual student and school, district, and State levels.”

Just over a week after Rosenblum’s response, the state decided to delay its exams until the fall. (New Jersey and Maryland are other states that have pushed back testing to the fall.)

In an April 14 statement, Reykdal said the Biden administration had “different values” on the issue. “They were seeking to test as many students as possible this spring, and we know this approach did not support the mental health of Washington’s students,” Reykdal said, “nor is it the best use of our limited remaining in-person instructional hours this spring.”

In response to questions about where its negotiations with the Biden administration fell short, Washington state education department spokeswoman Katy Payne reiterated that the Biden administration “wanted more students to test than we did.”

To a certain extent, the rejection of Washington state’s plan represents a missed opportunity, said Briggs, who noted that the National Assessment of Educational Progress—the nation’s no-stakes assessment of students—relies on sampling.

“If not everybody has to do everything, then you can do more innovative things in terms of what you’re asking students,” Briggs said.

California leaves big decisions to local districts

California, which educates close to 1 out of 8 students in the nation’s K-12 public schools, doesn’t have a federal testing waiver. But the state has still carved out its own strategy for assessment, and its interactions with the department highlight important boundaries between federal and state power.

In early April, California education officials wrote to Rosenblum effectively asking him to publicly affirm conversations between the Education Department and the state that California wouldn’t need a waiver for its plan. That plan said while the state would offer a shortened version of the state’s Smarter Balanced test, California had approved the use of other diagnostic and interim assessments to provide results to the public and other purposes. The letter notes that this course of action followed calls from various groups to suspend all statewide tests “due to the incredibly challenging conditions facing educators, students, and families.”

The letter was written by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond and state Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond. Darling-Hammond was also the head of the transition team for the Biden Education Department.

In response, on April 6, Rosenblum concurred that no waiver was necessary for California’s plan, which would still require the districts to administer the state tests “except where the State concludes it is not viable to administer the assessment because of the pandemic.” But he noted that this plan did not give the districts permission to simply choose a local test in place of a state test, if giving the state test is a viable option.

On April 15, California posted guidance about testing this spring for districts. The guidance doesn’t specify a role for the state to approve or reject districts’ testing plans—the same day, Los Angeles Unified officials announced that the nation’s second-largest district won’t administer the exam for elementary and middle school students, although it will give the test to high school students.

California did publish considerations for districts when determining the viability of state tests, and said students not getting in-person instruction should be not brought back to schools just to be tested.

“The California Department of Education doesn’t want to have anything to do with approval” of districts’ testing decisions, said Doug McRae, a retired education measurement expert who’s worked on California testing systems. “In this particular case, it’s a hot potato. They’re saying: Locals, you figure it out.”

In response to questions about the state’s role, a spokesman for California’s education department, Scott Roark, said that, “Where it is the most viable option, [local educational agencies] are expected to administer the English/language arts and mathematics state summative assessments.” Roark also said the state would be collecting data on districts’ decisions and how they determined the viability of different tests.

Less testing is still too much for some districts

Even though Oregon has federal approval to reduce testing, several districts feel that doesn’t go far enough.

The school board in the state’s largest district, in Portland, passed a resolution to cancel the state’s Smarter Balanced tests, as did other districts.

Districts made this decision in spite of state rules forbidding them from simply ignoring the tests; as a result, they’ll have to create a “corrective action plan” to be in compliance in the fall. Still, the executive director of the Oregon School Boards Association, Jim Green, called bringing kids back to schools to test them “a waste of time.”

And the federal Education Department’s decision to grant waivers from the requirement that at least 95 percent of eligible students take state tests has led to questions about the validity of scores, and how interested districts will be in trying to get students to take the tests. New York City students must “opt in” to take state tests this spring.

Various kinds of data from this year, including test scores, are bound to be messy, Kowalski of the Data Quality Campaign stressed. Yet if districts stick to administering the tests, figuring out the reasons why students don’t take them—such as a lack of broadband internet or parental opt-outs—is a worthwhile exercise, she argued.

“That’s valuable information, almost as valuable as the test score itself,” she said.

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