23 Feb Biden throws a wet blanket on blanket waivers
By Dale Chu
With more states signaling interest in skipping annual testing in 2021, the Biden administration announced yesterday evening that it would not be issuing blanket waivers on state assessments. In a letter sent to state education chiefs, the U.S. Department of Education (USDOE) correctly underscored the importance of state tests in “advancing educational equity” along with the “vital importance” of parents, educators, and other key stakeholders having access to student performance data. The decision garnered mixed reactions, with testing skeptics expressing disappointment and testing advocates breathing a sigh of relief.
Indeed, the voices clamoring for the feds to suspend testing had been building for months, right up to Monday’s highly anticipated announcement. Biden and his team deserve credit for holding firm in the face of this pressure and opposition, protecting the equity safeguards assessments provide while appropriately offering greater flexibility to states on accountability. Moreover, the feds are giving states additional latitude on administration requirements, including shorter exams and extended testing windows that, if needed, may push into the fall.
For testing supporters, it was encouraging to see the USDOE adopt this posture, which puts the interests of students ahead of adults. But the jury is still out as to how these flexibilities and accountability waivers will play out. Specifically, this sentence towards the end of the letter should raise some eyebrows:
We recognize that individual states may need additional assessment flexibility based on the specific circumstances across or within the state, and we will work with states to address their individual needs and conditions.
The AFT noticed this too, and in response had this to say:
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 challenges… we intend to hold the Biden administration to its word on both.
Similarly, testing advocates would do well not to let their guards down and keep a close eye on how the USDOE handles individual state waiver requests as they roll in. Yesterday’s news is reason for cautious optimism to be sure, but vigilance will be required to ensure states follow through on their responsibilities. Despite all of the disruptions and adversities posed by COVID-19, states are on the hook to fulfill their assessment and reporting obligations so that the public can better understand the pandemic’s impact on student learning.