Biden administration requires testing, with flexibility for states

'State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity'
By: | February 24, 2021
States can administer online or abbreviated versions assessments and can also extend testing into the summer or the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. (AdobeStock/Syda Productions)States can administer online or abbreviated versions assessments and can also extend testing into the summer or the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. (AdobeStock/Syda Productions)

The U.S. Education Department will not waive the ESEA requirement that states administer annual assessments for SY 2020-21, but it will allow flexibility in state testing windows and the opportunity to apply for waivers from accountability and school identification requirements, according to the Letter to Chief State School Officer released this week.

“State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity,” wrote Assistant Secretary-delegate Ian Rosenblum. “At the same time, 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.”

According to the letter, flexibility and requirements for the 2020-21 school year include the following:

Accountability and school improvement status: The department will provide states the opportunity to apply for waivers of the requirement to use assessment results to “implement and report the results of the accountability system.”

States in receipt of the waiver would not be required to calculate and report progress toward meeting long-term goals identified in the comprehensive state ESSA plans, nor would a state be required to use assessment results to provide annual meaningful differentiation among its schools.

States would also not be required to identify low-performing schools or schools with low-performing subgroups for comprehensive, targeted, or additional targeted support and improvement based on assessment results from SY 2020-21.

Transparency and reporting: ED will continue to require states meet report card requirements outlined in ESEA, “including the requirement to disaggregate data by student subgroup.”


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Among the data that must be reported are chronic absenteeism, a concern this year given the number of reported students who have been missing or disengaged from school during remote and hybrid learning. The reporting must also include data on technology and connectedness of students and teachers.

Assessments: ED says states must administer state assessments, but suggests options for flexibility in offering the assessments, including:

  • Administering an abbreviated version of the assessment.
  • Providing an option for remote administration, if allowable and feasible.
  • Providing an extended window for administering assessments. ED said this could include multiple testing windows or “extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the SY 2021-22 school year.”

The guidance also says schools should not require students to return to schools in person for “the sole purpose of taking tests.”

Florida’s Department of Education notified school districts recently that students in the Sunshine State would be required to return in person to take assessments, even if the students had been attending virtually due to medical conditions.

English language proficiency assessments in many states also require that students take the assessments in person, a concern that several state and local education officials raised during the 2021 National ESEA Network Conference.

Data needed for decision-making

ED’s assessment and accountability guidance letter received quick reaction from education stakeholders across the nation.

The assessment requirement is “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,” wrote House Education and Labor Committee Chairman Bobby Scott, D-Va., and Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee Chair Patty Murray, D-Wash.

“Our commitment is firm that 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.

In Michigan, which sent a request earlier this year asking ED to waive the assessment and accountability requirements for SY 2020-21, State Superintendent Michael Rice said in a statement that “given this important decision, the absence of blanket waivers of assessments this year, and the U.S. Department of Education’s recognition of the possible need for additional state flexibility based on specific circumstances, the Michigan Department of Education will be reaching out to and working with the U.S. Department of Education to share the value of the benchmark assessments administered statewide during this year.”

House Education and Labor Committee Ranking Member Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., expressed concern that the opportunity to apply for flexibility waivers could come at a price.


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“While flexibility is needed this year, the Biden administration is offering waivers in exchange for states’ acceptance of unrelated new requirements in violation of ESEA,” Foxx said. “Today’s announcement claims that safely reopening schools is President Biden’s first priority, but his actions continue to say something different.”

Teachers’ unions back assessment guidance

Teachers unions expressed approval of the Biden administration’s guidance.

“We hope every state will submit a request to suspend high-stakes school rankings and potentially harmful sanctions against already struggling schools,” said NEA President Becky Pringle. “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.”

“Today’s announcement includes two very important points: that no student should be brought back in person just to take a test, and that states that require additional flexibility in administering such tests will get a fair hearing from the Education Department if and when they present real operational challenge,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten. “For the benefit of students and educators everywhere, we intend to hold the Biden administration to its word on both.”

Charles Hendrix covers education funding and other Title I issues for LRP Publications.