What the Education Department’s new testing guidance means for educators

Federal accountability components may be waived, but the tests themselves are still in place.

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

This school year has been like no other in recent history for students and staff. Some students are wearing masks and socially distanced while in class, some are experiencing a hybrid mix of in-person and online learning, and still others have been in virtual-only mode since last fall. Given the unprecedented situation, it should be no surprise that the traditional function and administration of state testing must be different this year, too.

The U.S. Department of Education seems to understand this. The department announced late Monday night that they are inviting states to request waivers from federal school accountability requirements this year. The possibility of an accountability waiver is encouraging news for states. Though it is not the blanket waiver granted by the department last spring, the “invitation” for states to request an accountability waiver is welcome by most educators because it (1) acknowledges the extraordinary challenges schools have had trying to teach, much less reach, students during the pandemic; (2) recognizes that it makes little sense to try to compare this unique year—performance-wise—with recent “normal” years; and (3) avoids the possibility of educators and their schools being punished for poor performance through no fault of their own. Indeed, the accountability component is what gives state tests their high-stakes consequences.

The federal waiver option that would suspend these penalties is also consistent with parental views. A new poll by the National PTA shows that a majority of parents believe it is very important that state tests not be used to grade schools (56 percent) and or be used to evaluate teachers (51 percent) this year.

However, federal officials do not offer a waiver option for giving the tests themselves. Indeed, the guidance reemphasizes the point about testing this year, while providing possible alternatives to administering large-scale assessments during a pandemic. States can move the testing window to this summer or fall, reduce the length of the exams, or administer the tests remotely.

Though there is a significant block of support for making students take state tests this year, there is also a sizeable contingent of parents and educators who question the wisdom of using instructional time (especially precious in-person time) for testing and the need for such results that will merely confirm what we already know: Students experience difficulties going to school amid a global pandemic that has already cost more than 500,000 American lives in less than a year. There is plenty of local and school data available this year to let policymakers and educators know how students are doing and which ones need individual help.

What this year’s state tests will require is context. What is needed are new ways to think about, measure, report on, and use student achievement data beyond these test scores. One opportunity is for states to expand the collection and reporting of nonacademic indicators. Most states have selected only one nonacademic indicator (typically chronic absenteeism) in their accountability plans, even though ESSA allows them to pick as many as they want.

States should consider adding indicators that have taken on even greater importance during the pandemic. Beyond the obvious for essential learning, like advanced coursework and postsecondary readiness, criteria might include school climate and safety surveys, student and educator engagement, internet connectivity, and access to extracurricular activities.

The pandemic has highlighted many existing inequities in our education system. State testing to collect data on student achievement this year may be important. But more important is to begin to collect, quantify, and monitor the learning conditions that affect those results moving forward.

David Griffith is ASCD’s senior direct of advocacy and government relations. Follow him on Twitter @Griffith2020.