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Education Department offers flexibility, but not a way out, for spring testing

The Biden administration rejected calls to allow states to skip the tests altogether, which they were allowed to do last year. (iStock)

The Education Department told states Monday they are still required to administer annual exams to students, part of the national schools accountability program, though the agency offered flexibility in how the tests are given.

States may seek permission to move assessments to the fall, administer tests remotely and/or shorten the exam, the agency said. But the Biden administration rejected calls to allow states to skip the tests altogether, which they were allowed to do last year.

“State assessment and accountability systems play an important role in advancing educational equity,” Ian Rosenblum, an official with the federal department, wrote in a letter Monday to state school chiefs. “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.”

Many had hoped that the administration would waive the testing requirements altogether. More than 70 local, state and national organizations signed a letter urging the administration to let states use alternative assessments instead.

Their concerns include the difficult logistics of administering tests to students, many of whom are still learning from home, plus questions about the reliability of exams administered under these conditions.

Supporters of the testing say the exams are needed, in part, to assess the academic impact of the pandemic.

Pandemic aside, some argue that these high-stakes tests, which are required by federal law, do little to advance education, do not properly measure achievement and lead schools to spend a lot of time preparing for the test. Others say the annual exams are a critical tool for holding states and school districts accountable for results.

Some saw the decision over waivers as an early signal for how the new Biden administration would view this debate, which is one element of a longtime battle over education reform.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, welcomed the flexibility offered but said it wasn’t enough.

“It is a frustrating turn to see the administration ask states to continue requiring assessments during this tumultuous school year,” she said in a statement. The agency’s plan, she said, “misses a huge opportunity to really help our students.”

But the Council of Chief State School Officers was pleased with what they called a “common-sense solution.”

“State education leaders and CCSSO deeply value assessment as a tool to know where students are academically, identify inequities and inform decision-making, including ensuring supports get to the students who need them,” said a statement from chief executive Carissa Moffat Miller. The announcement, she said, “acknowledges the real, varied challenges that educators, students, and families are facing across the country.”