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Biden’s Testing Stance Leaves States Tough Choices. Some May Still Try to Avoid Exams

By Andrew Ujifusa, Evie Blad & Sarah Schwartz — February 23, 2021 12 min read
Flags decorate a space outside the secretary's office at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington.
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The Biden administration’s decision not to entertain states’ requests to cancel standardized exams for this school year due to the pandemic marks its first major K-12 policy decision—and it’s leading to no shortage of controversy.

Although the department has now provided clarity on that highly anticipated decision, its approach to the issue—a continued mandate for testing, tempered by some flexibility—will still push states to make difficult choices. And the clock is ticking on an already disrupted school year.

Questions about how much value to place on the test will help define the months ahead. And despite the administration’s rebuff, officials in at least a few states have announced plans to get permission to cancel the tests.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education informed states that it’s not inviting them to seek “blanket waivers of assessments” for the 2020-21 school year, a message that essentially tells states that they should plan to give federally mandated exams in English/language arts, math, and science. States got such blanket waivers last spring.

However, the department will consider requests to essentially put accountability systems on hold. That would mean not identifying certain schools for improvement or differentiating schools by ratings for the 2020-21 school year, for example.

States could also get waivers from the requirement that at least 95 percent of eligible students take the tests. That decision reflects a broad consensus in the education community that for this school year, states and schools shouldn’t face typical consequences from statewide exams and the accountability mechanisms linked to them.

As for the tests themselves, the Biden administration said states would have the option of giving shorter versions of the regular tests (a decision California reached last year), administering tests remotely, and expanding their testing windows so that students could take the exams this summer or even during the 2021-22 school year.

How states make decisions about those issues, amid the daunting array of practical challenges and political pressures, could put tremendous strain on education and political leaders.

I fully support public accountability. I just think this is not the right year to administer another test.

“Statewide assessments are important to identify what extra support schools need to help their students get back on track,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., the leaders of Congress’ House and Senate education committees, in a Tuesday statement.

Yet American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten called the decision “frustrating” and a “missed opportunity.” Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., a former principal and long-time opponent of standardized exams, declared simply that it was “wrong.” And FairTest, an advocacy group opposed to standardized exams that works with state-level advocates, said the tests would be inaccurate and unfair even if they weren’t used for accountability. “They are still likely to be misused to rate schools and teachers, rather than to help students,” FairTest said in a statement.

The Biden administration took a compromise-driven approach under very difficult circumstances, and rightly set aside accountability concerns, said Lillian Pace, a vice president at KnowledgeWorks, which works on assessment and personalized-learning systems.

But she said the debate about testing has been divisive for far too long, and that statewide summative tests now carry too much weight and political significance compared to other important and actionable data (such as information from assessments embedded in curriculum teachers are familiar with) that states should be paying a lot of attention to during the pandemic.

“This is an incredibly complex issue,” Pace said. “A one-size-fits-all approach was never going to work in this moment.”

Tony Sanders, the superintendent of School District U-46 in Elgin, Ill., had mixed emotions in response to the Monday guidance. He’s skeptical about the idea of testing this spring, but grateful about the new flexibility on accountability from Washington.

“It’s not exactly what I was hoping for,” said Sanders, who led an effort by Illinois superintendents to get a blanket testing waiver. “But it’s a step in the right direction.”

States are still weighing their testing options

Before Monday’s federal guidance, some state schools chiefs had already announced plans to request federal waivers that would allow them to fully cancel tests. And even after the Biden administration said it would not issue “blanket waivers,” some state leaders said they still saw an opening to request a cancellation of statewide summative exams, citing local circumstances or a willingness to use existing data from local formative assessments in their place.

On Wednesday, Michigan’s education department said it was “initiating discussions” with federal officials about getting a blanket waiver. The House and Senate education committee chairs of the Pennsylvania legislature announced a similar move Wednesday.

Also this week, Shana Young, the interim state superintendent of education for the District of Columbia, announced that D.C. schools were seeking a waiver to cancel the tests, calling it “the best course of action for our education community.”

In Colorado, State Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, a Democrat and chairwoman of the education committee, said she would still push a bill she’s cosponsored, which would require the state to request a full testing waiver and prohibit student test scores from being used in teacher and principal evaluations.

“While the federal guidance was not as helpful nor applicable to Colorado as we had hoped, they did provide some clarity on how to frame our waiver request,” Zenzinger rote in a Facebook post Tuesday morning. “They want to see local assessment data, and we can provide that in our bill.”

There’s also interest in flexibility that could involve replacing state assessments with other tests. A day before announcing its intent to seek a blanket waiver from federal officials, Michigan said it would look to get approval to use results of state-mandated, local “benchmark assessments” in place of a statewide assessment, Michael Rice, Michgan’s state superintendent, said in a statement.

However, more than 40 education and business groups (including several influential Beltway organizations like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Education Trust, the Business Roundtable, and the National Urban League) quickly moved to stifle support for substituting local for statewide tests. They issued a Tuesday statement saying that “these local assessments do not hold all students to the same standards and expectations.” These same groups said they were pleased with the Biden Education Department’s Monday testing guidance.

In some states that had previously requested waivers, leaders said they would continue to explore their options.

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Students testing.

Georgia sought a waiver from statewide testing earlier this month. In response to an emailed question from Education Week, a spokesperson for the Georgia education department said Tuesday that Superintendent Richard Woods, a Republican, “disagrees with the conclusion that high-stakes standardized tests are necessary, wise, or feasible in the middle of a pandemic. We are reviewing the information sent to states by [the U.S. Department of Education].”

The New York state education department, which had previously pushed for a full waiver, said it would have continued discussions with the Biden administration “to find a path forward that is best for the health and safety of all New York’s children.” But it didn’t definitively shut the door on seeking a blanket waiver.

“While we are disappointed by this decision, we are examining all possible options,” the state agency said in response to Monday’s announcement. The agency also affirmed the Biden team’s position that “no child should be made to come to school to take a state assessment.”

The New York department will ask the state’s board of education to cancel the state Regents exams that aren’t used to meet federal testing requirements and not require those exams for high school graduation. (Some Regents exams are used to meet federal mandates.) It remains to be seen if many states and districts cast aside tests not required by federal law to make it easier to give mandated exams.

While we are disappointed by this decision, we are examining all possible options.

In his guidance to states, acting Assistant Secretary of Education Ian Rosenblum (who previously worked at the Education Trust’s New York state affiliate) said the federal Education Department would consider “additional assessment flexibility” on a conditional basis. He did not explicitly say this could lead the agency to reconsider its decision not to consider “blanket” waivers. In theory, that statement leaves a crack that states disinclined to give the tests might try to squeeze through.

Yet if the pandemic eases and vaccinations become widespread, it might be hard for Biden’s Education Department to justify granting some states only limited waivers, while subsequently giving other states the power to cancel exams.

Just how far federal officials should go when making ultimate decisions about states’ requests for flexibility is in dispute.

Lauren Morando Rhim, the executive director of the National Center for Special Education in Charter Schools, said in a statement that while “very limited and nuanced flexibility” from federal officials was appropriate, “States must continue to be required to capture key assessment and school climate data—as required by the law—so they can hold districts and schools to high standards” and get resources to students in need.

But Stephen Sireci, a distinguished professor and the director of the Center for Educational Assessment at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, argued that states should be allowed wherever possible to make it easier for leaders on the ground concerning issues like testing length and when certain students get tested.

“I want to empower the local officials to make education decisions,” Sireci said.

Considering parent opt-outs and shorter exams

States that move ahead with standardized testing in some form, as states like Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina plan to do, will likely face several challenges, starting with how many kids will take the tests.

Avoiding the regular 95 percent participation requirement—which applies to individual schools—might take pressure off educators and families. But it only underscores how hard it could be for states to make useful comparisons across student groups, and parents from all kinds of backgrounds could decide to opt their children out of taking the tests, according to Pace. “The data is going to have considerable problems, period,” she said.

In Sanders’ Illinois district, 53 percent of students are remote. Getting them to come into buildings this spring to take tests presents challenges for transportation, other operations, and perhaps most importantly, the sentiment in his community, Sanders said.

“We would have to get them into a school when their parents don’t currently want them in a school,” Sanders said. “How do you physically make a kid feel safe coming into a building to take a test?”

As part of the flexibility it’s offering states, the Biden administration said they could consider offering exams remotely “where feasible.” Yet assessment experts have said it’s unlikely that many states will be able to give tests remotely, as not every student will have the device or bandwidth they need to take the exam that way.

Testing at home could also introduce a host of validity and security concerns: Some students will have quiet environments while others won’t; some students might receive help from parents, or look up answers online. All of these variables mean that states can’t assume in-person tests are comparable to remote tests, Scott Marion, the executive director of the Center for Assessment, said earlier this year.

The data is going to have considerable problems, period.

At least a few states have settled on approaches for in-person exams. In Texas, schools can set up alternative testing sites that allow for greater social distancing, like performing arts centers or hotels; Georgia schools can offer evening testing hours to help keep student cohorts separate.

Then there’s the issue of an expanded testing window, which could overlap with states’ efforts to expand summer school or extend learning and create a whirlwind of decisions and frenetic activity for K-12 leaders.

In Pennsylvania, separate from the push from the two state lawmakers to get a testing waiver, acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega said in a draft letter he posted Tuesday on the state education department’s website that the state would allow districts “to hold assessment materials until later in the calendar year (i.e., September 2021) to ensure that a larger, more representative sample of students participates in the assessments.” Ortegahighlighted higher percentages of low-income students, students of color, and English-language learners receiving fully remote instruction.

It’s impossible to balance considerations of protecting public health with the need for “comparability, reliability, and validity of any assessment results” within the previous testing schedule, Ortega wrote.

Sireci said states could provide shorter exams to students around the start of the next school year to enable a more nimble and useful assessment system. Such truncated exams, he added, should focus as much as possible on what educators know students have actually been taught in a disrupted year.

“They’re going to have students who missed a lot of the last year, maybe some kids in special pods where they had extra instruction,” Sireci said. “I think testing students in the fall is going to be really useful to teachers next year, if they get the results quickly.”

While a rigid turnaround time for traditional statewide tests might be helpful for typical accountability systems, it just wouldn’t give educators what they need to help students fast enough in an extraordinary year, he noted.

State and local leaders must also be mindful about what they ask of and expect families, and children in particular, when it comes to taking tests at unusual periods, Pace said.

“Kids are absolutely exhausted from the demands of this year,” she said. “Coming into a time of testing, instead of a time of building community, is incredibly concerning. That might be a [strategy] that works for some. I don’t think many communities are going to see that as an answer.”

Meanwhile, Sanders said he’s worried about taking up valuable instructional days in an already-disrupted year with the statewide summative tests.

And he believes teachers can rely on other assessments and data to do as much as possible to help students recover from the pandemic’s academic effects. He also supports an expanded testing window to give his district more flexibility.

“I fully support public accountability,” Sanders said. “I just think this is not the right year to administer another test.”


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