BREAKING NEWS: US Department of Education Requires Standardized Testing (Without Accountability) with “Flexibility” (Flexibility Waivers Required)

The Biden administration made their first important education decision and probably aggravated everyone, Chalkbeat reports,

The Biden administration said Monday that states must administer federally required standardized tests this year, but schools won’t be held accountable for the results — and that states could give shorter, remote, or delayed versions of the exams.

Last year COVID hit a few weeks before the scheduled April/May federally required standardized tests and Secretary of Education deVos granted a waiver to any state that applied. Some progressives mused whether this was the end of the federal testing mandate.

What would soon to be confirmed Secretary of Education Cardona do?  At his confirmation hearing Cardona gave a vague reply to the waiver question.

I have mixed feelings.

If the purpose is accountability the tests are a bad idea, test prep dominates, if the tests are useful to parents, school leaders and teachers they are worthwhile. The current tests are not useful, in fact, they are deleterious.  

I mused about the testing decision a week ago. Read here.

Monday’s letter to Chief State School Officers begins,

In these challenging times, we at the U.S. Department of Education stand with you and are committed to doing everything in our power to support the students, educators, and schools in your state. Please know that we are grateful for your leadership and for the extraordinary work of educators across the Nation.

And goes on to mention the President’s “first priority,”

President Biden’s first priority is to safely re-open schools and get students back in classrooms, learning face-to-face from teachers with their fellow students.

Do we really have to “understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning ….”, apparently so.

To be successful once schools have re-opened, we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need.

How about smaller class size, mentoring programs, equitable funding …., oh, you don’t control state budgets.

We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs. In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing.

We can identify “educational inequities” by levels of parent education and family income. Funding inequities are key and aside from Title 1, (about 10% of educational funding) the inequities come from within states. For example the funding inequities in New York State are staggering and the current governor ignores the disparities and fights to keep the inequities in a contentious court fight.

The feds do realize this is not a regular year.

it is clear that the pandemic requires significant flexibility for the 2020-2021 school year so that states can respond to the unique circumstances they are facing; keep students, staff, and their families safe; and maintain their immediate focus on supporting students’ social, emotional, and academic development.

The Department is, therefore, offering the following flexibility with respect to your assessment, accountability, and reporting systems for the 2020-2021 school year.

What do the feds mean by “flexibility?”

We are inviting states to request a waiver for the 2020-2021 school year of the accountability and school identification requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA). A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system, including calculating progress toward long-term goals and measurements of interim progress or indicators, or to annually meaningfully differentiate among its public schools using data from the 2020-2021 school year. This flexibility would explicitly include waiving the requirement that the Academic Achievement indicator be adjusted to account for a participation rate below 95 percent. The state would also not be required to identify schools for comprehensive support and improvement (CSI), targeted support and improvement (TSI), and additional targeted support and improvement (ATSI) based on data from the 2020-2021 school year.

 Beyond the scope of these waivers, we also encourage states and school districts to consider other steps within your purview to further reduce the stakes of assessments this year, such as excluding their use from students’ final grades and grade promotion decisions.

The tests become no-stakes tests for students, teachers and schools; however, I say again, the feds have no control over state funding.

The feds require transparency, as they should,

It remains vitally important that parents, educators, and the public have access to data on student learning and success. The Department will therefore maintain all state and local report card requirements, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup (except for reporting related to accountability, such as school ratings). As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, the Department will require all states to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices like laptops or tablets and to high-speed internet at home.

This data is readily available and should be publicly reported.

The feds realize COVID has impacted differently in different districts and school districts have responded differently, some school districts are still fully remote while at the other end of the spectrum others are fully in-person with a full range in between.

We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices. Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test. We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments. A state should use that flexibility to consider: (1) Administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments; (2) Offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or (3) Extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. That could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021-2022 school year. States that elect to extend testing windows should also consider how they can make results available to the public in a timely manner after assessments are administered.

A major change is the requirement, to focus on assessments to provide information to parents, educators, and the public. about student performance and to help target resources and supports without using the test as an assessment, hummm.

The feds emphasize the need for flexibility and also emphasizes the need for local involvement.

We also recognize that individual states may need additional assessment flexibility based on the specific circumstances across or within the state, and we will work with states to address their individual needs and conditions while ensuring the maximum available statewide data to inform the targeting of resources and supports. If a request for a waiver is appropriate, prior to submitting a waiver request you must provide the public and interested local educational agencies notice and a reasonable time for them to comment in the manner in which the state educational agency customarily provides notice and the opportunity to comment to the public.

I have questions.

How can a state create a test useful to school districts, school leaders and teachers in a few months? They can’t. Are they just going to shorten the number of questions on the current tests? The current tests are not useful; results don’t filter down to schools until after the beginning of the school year. To be useful tests should target what teachers actually taught not the Common Core Standards-Based tests. It is impossible to create useful tests in a few months.

Scott Marion at the Center for Assessment writes,

Accountability must shift from a top-down approach that relies heavily on a single end-of-year test to one that recognizes and supports the more holistic nature of learning and assessment reform.  

Further, my vision of accountability recognizes that real and sustained change only occurs when actors in the system take ownership of the need to change, as well as the methods necessary to bring about that change

Can New York State, or any state, create a test that is useful for folks on the ground? When will, to quote Marion, “…the actors in the system take ownership of the need to change?”

Unless the feds broadly define “flexibility,” for example, including teacher judgments, and states use innovative approaches to both defining testing and actually using the results to impact instruction I fear all the feds are doing is angering everyone who actually works in schools.

Not a great start for the new administration.

UPDATE: The NYSED cancels June Regents examinations, see SED press release here, more specific details at March Regents Meeting, March 8th

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