By:  Lauren Camera
Source: U.S. News & World Report

Biden Education Department Offers Flexibility in Testing, But Doesn’t Exempt States

The Education Department, in its first major decision under the Biden administration, told states that they will be granted significant flexibility in how and when they administer annual tests, but they will not be exempt from administering them – a blow to teachers unions who had been pushing the White House to release states from the federal standardized testing requirement. 

"The Department of Education is committed to supporting all states in assessing student learning during the pandemic to help target resources and support to the students with the greatest needs," said Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education. "We also recognize that at a time when everything in our education system is different, there need to be different ways that states can administer state tests like moving them to the fall so that precious in-person learning time this year can be spent on instruction. Balancing these priorities is the best approach." 

Department officials said they are prepared to extend the testing window into the summer or fall, make allowances for the test to be administered remotely and for it to be shortened in length. They also announced it would accept applications for waivers from federal accountability and school identification requirements, including waiving the accountability provisions relating to having a 95% test participation rate.

The majority of the education community cheered the administration's announcement, agreeing with Rosenblum and other Education Department officials who said administering the tests will ensure that parents, teachers and lawmakers understand which students need the most help while the flexibility the department is prepared to offer will ensure that states and local school districts are not penalized for any poor performance. 

But the national teachers unions slammed the announcement. Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the Biden administration "misses a huge opportunity" by keeping the testing mandate in place. 

"It is a frustrating turn to see the administration ask states to continue requiring assessments during this tumultuous school year," she said. "As the educators in the classroom, we have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child's development, nor do they particularly help kids or inform best practices for teaching and learning. That is especially true in these unprecedented times, when students and teachers alike are remaking the school experience in the most unlikely of circumstances."

The president of the National Education Association, Becky Pringle, said states should negotiate with the Education Department to suspend testing anyway.

"We hope every state will submit a request to suspend high stakes school rankings and potentially harmful sanctions against already struggling schools," she said in a statement. "High stakes standardized tests administered during the global health crisis should not determine a student's future, evaluate educators, or punish schools; nor should they come at the expense of precious learning time that students could be spending with their educators."

The reaction by the two national teachers union leaders underscores how difficult it's been for teachers to provide instruction that resembles in any way a traditional school year. Pringle and Weingarten said they'd prefer the Education Department to allow local school districts to evaluate their students in a way that best addresses each district's unique challenges in a way, they argue, that standardized assessments could never do. 

"Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now," Pringle said.

Rosenblum rejected that notion in a letter sent to state education chiefs Monday, in which he said the department would not accept "blanket waivers of assessments."

And policymakers agreed with Rosenblum. In a rare joint statement from Sen. Patty Murray, Chairwoman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, and Rep. Bobby Scott, the Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, the two characterized the decision as crucial to better understand the depth of learning loss incurred by the country's most marginalized students, including those from low-income families, students with disabilities, English learners and Black and Latino students whose communities have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.

"We must do everything in our power to make up for lost learning time and address achievement gaps that have been exacerbated by the pandemic – and that starts by understanding the scope of the problem," they said. "We know that this is an incredibly challenging time for students and educators – and that we need to provide states with certain flexibilities in addition to providing school districts with the resources they need to recover."

They also emphasized the importance of having accurate data so that states can properly direct $130 billion in federal aid for K-12 schools that's included in the president's $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package currently winding its way through Congress

"Statewide assessments are important to identify what extra support schools need to help their students get back on track and to ensure every student has an equitable opportunity to succeed," they added. "The Department of Education must ensure educators and policymakers have as much statewide data as possible to ensure that support and resources are directed to schools and students who need it most," they wrote. 

State education chiefs breathed a sigh of relief when the announcement came down, having spent the last few months worried Biden's team might scrap annual assessments altogether. 

Carissa Moffat Miller, CEO of the Council of Chief State School Officers said the decision "acknowledges the real, varied challenges that educators, students, and families are facing across the country."

In his letter, Rosenblum provided details on the flexibilities the Education Department is poised to offer, including how districts can apply for waivers from the federal accountability requirements.

The disability community especially cheered the announcement. Students with disabilities have borne the brunt of the pandemic, with those dependent on in-person assistance to learn largely unable to receive it. And in most states, the annual assessment provides the only data point that shows how students with disabilities are performing compared to their grade-level peers. 

"The guidance rightly recognizes the challenges facing schools and families amidst the COVID-19 pandemic but holds strong to its commitment to equity, opportunity, and data transparency for all students," Lindsay Jones, president of the National Center for Learning Disabilities, said. "As we emerge from the pandemic, it is more important than ever that we continue to collect data that illuminates the inequities in our system and pushes us to make change that will benefit our most vulnerable students."