How 5 states are reacting to Biden’s testing guidance

Many states still seeking waives as some leaders prioritize social-emotional wellbeing
By: | February 25, 2021

The U.S. Education Department’s guidance on assessment and accountability for this school year has been met with mixed reactions from state educational leaders across the nation.

While some applauded the guidance for providing flexibilities from accountability and reporting requirements based on assessments in SY 2020-21, the requirement to administer statewide summative assessments required by ESEA has been met with concern in many quarters.

Following are selected states’ responses to the guidance and next steps.

Michigan: Using state benchmarks

The Michigan Department of Education requested a waiver in January from ESEA assessment and accountability requirements for SY 2020-21 in January, and the state said it is still waiting for a response to that request.

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Following the Feb. 22 guidance, state educational agency officials said they will be “initiating discussions” with ED “to allow Michigan to waive the federal requirement for statewide summative assessments this school year.”

State Superintendent Michael Rice is advocating for the use of the state’s benchmark assessments, rather than summative assessments, to identify student academic progress and needs.

“With a majority of our kids at home, with the challenges of getting kids back in school, and with the need for more instructional time to maximize academic and social and emotional focus and growth, this is not the time to engage in state summative assessments,” Rice said. “We are able to discern where kids are academically for parents and for educators with our benchmark assessments, and we can use the assessments to target resources, interventions, and supports for our kids in our districts.”

The state said it will continue to prepare to administer its summative assessments, pending a response from ED on its flexibility requests.

Georgia: ‘Good and bad news’

The Georgia Department of Education applied for a waiver from the ESEA assessment requirements earlier this school year, and State Superintendent Richard Woods said the new guidance was both good and bad news.

“The good news is that [the U.S. ED] is inviting states to request a waiver, for the 2020-21 school year, of the accountability and school identification requirements in federal law. … As soon as we receive additional information from [ED], Georgia will seek all available flexibility from these requirements.”

However, Woods called the decision to require states to administer summative assessments disappointing. “I completely disagree with this decision, and believe it shows the continued disconnect between Washington, D.C., and the realities of the classroom,” Woods said.

He said in light of the removal of the 95% assessment participation rate requirement in ED’s guidance and the recommendation that virtual-only students not be required to return to brick-and-mortar buildings solely to take assessments, “I have communicated to Georgia school districts that they should not require virtual students to come into the building solely for the purpose of taking Georgia Milestones, and should ensure that parents understand this option is available to them.”

New York: Waiver was rejected

The New York State Educational Agency had also applied for a waiver from the ESEA assessment requirements and announced that the U.S. ED rejected that waiver request. Agency spokesperson Emily DeSantis said the department was “disappointed” by the decision, “but is examining all possible options.”

The SEA applauded the language in ED’s guidance that students should not come to school solely to take an assessment and said that the flexibility provided from ESEA accountability requirements is welcome.

DeSantis said the SEA “will propose a series of regulatory amendments at the March Board of Regents meeting so Regents Exams would not be required to meet graduation requirements and to cancel any Regents Exam that is not required by [ED] to be held. We continue to have discussions with [ED] regarding this matter to find a path forward that is best for the health and safety of all New York’s children.”

California: Prioritizing connections

California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond said schools in the state “must resist the urge to rush into stressful, high-stakes testing, when in fact our students will be in a better position to learn if we first prioritize positive connections, relationships, and their mental health and well-being.”

“We recognize the need to measure the impacts of distance learning, and my team at the California Department of Education will be making recommendations that urge the U.S. Department of Education to provide maximum flexibility to our school districts this year by offering a range of testing timelines, including the option to delay assessments until this summer or fall if needed.”

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The California State Board of Education voted Feb. 24 to submit a flexibility request to the U.S. Education Department. According to the state board, the request would:

  • Remove SY 2020-21 state assessments data from federal accountability measurements, and use the data collected to “inform local educators, parents, and the public and align resources to student supports.”
  • Remove penalties related to the 95 percent assessment participation requirement on the state’s Smarter Balanced English language arts and math assessments.
  • Extend the testing window for the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress, as well as the English Language Assessments for California until July 30.
  • Waive administration of the state’s science test for 2021.

Pennsylvania: Not seeking a waiver

Pennsylvania Acting Secretary of Education Noe Ortega released a draft letter to the U.S. Education Department indicating the state’s concern with the requirement to assess all students, but said it was not currently seeking a waiver from assessment requirements.

“Rather, we write to inform you that [the Pennsylvania Department of Education] will allow LEAs 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; reflect the differential effects of the pandemic, including the fact that many LEAs plan to continue the 2020-21 school year well into the summer; and provide Pennsylvania with the opportunity to continue collaborating with its Technical Advisory Committee and assessment vendor to ensure that assessment results have the greatest possible utility as our education community engages in the hard work of long-term education recovery.”

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