Latest Federal Guidance on Assessments: What You Need to Know

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States will not have the authority to cancel federally mandated standardized exams this year but will have wide-ranging discretion in when, where, and how the tests are given, the U.S. Department of Education announced recently. 

The news came as part of a letter the department sent to Chief State School Officers, announcing a new guidance on assessing student learning during the pandemic.

What The Guidance Says  

“State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity,” wrote Ian Rosenblum, acting assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education, in a letter to Chief State School Officers. “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.” 

The flexibility described in the Education Department’s Guidance includes: 

  • Extending the testing window and moving assessments to the summer or fall
  • Giving the assessment remotely, where feasible 
  • Shortening the state assessment to make testing more feasible to implement and prioritize in-person learning time

“We are not inviting blanket waivers of assessments,” Rosenblum wrote. “We also recognize that individual states may need additional assessment flexibility based on the specific circumstances across or within the state.” 

Schools will be able to request waivers from federal requirements of accountability. “This flexibility would explicitly include waiving the requirement that the Academic Achievement indicator be adjusted to account for a participation rate below 95 percent,” Rosenblum wrote. 

 Supporters Say:  

“The Covid-19 pandemic and associated school building closures have presented logistical challenges to giving assessments, and how states collect student learning data may look different this year,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, chief executive officer of the Council of Chief State School Officers, in a statement. “We appreciate that the Department will provide flexibility on how to administer statewide assessments and modify accountability systems as state leaders manage the continuing effects of the global pandemic. In addition, we are pleased that the Department has committed to working with states that may need additional flexibilities.” 

The National PTA recently released the results of a national survey of more than 1,500 parents or guardians of children in K-12 public schools. The survey found: 

  • 52% favor end-of-year testing this spring to measure the impact of the pandemic on student learning 
  • 60% are worried their child is behind and want more information on where their child is academically 
  • 62% believe their child to be behind compared to a normal school year 
  • 49% are worried their student will not be prepared for the next grade

Critics Say:  

“Standardized tests have never been valid or reliable measures of what students know and are able to do, and they are especially unreliable now,” said Becky Pringle, president of the National Education Association, criticizing the guidance in a statement. “We need to ensure that our students who have been hardest hit during the pandemic -- our Black, brown, rural, indigenous students, as well as those with special needs -- receive the support they need.” 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten was also critical of the new guidelines. She praised the overall work the Biden administration has done in a statement, but said, “It is a frustrating turn to see the administration ask states to continue requiring assessments during this tumultuous school year. While its plan does offer the option for testing modifications and waivers for accountability requirements, which is a start, it misses a huge opportunity to really help our students by allowing the waiver of assessments and the substitution, instead, of locally developed, authentic assessments that could be used by educators and parents as a baseline for work this summer and next year.” 

She added, “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.” 

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.