Photo: Michael Burke/EdSource
Students in a 5th-grade classroom while some of their classmates are participating from home.
This story was updated on April 4 with more information from the California State Board of Education.

California education officials have been told verbally that the state may not need to submit a waiver application to the U.S. Department of Education, thus opening the door for more flexibility this spring when it comes to standardized testing, as school districts continue to navigate reopening plans during the pandemic.

As vaccinations have ramped up and cases of Covid-19 have declined across the state, many California schools have started bringing back groups of students for in-person instruction. One part of the reopening puzzle recently has been how and when to administer statewide standardized tests, which in February the U.S. Department of Education said would be required.

Last spring, federal and state education officials removed the requirement that states had to test all students in their academic standards using statewide assessments like the Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts. But no such waiver was offered in 2021.

In lieu of a blanket waiver, the U.S. Department of Education this year said that states could apply for other ways to potentially ease the burden of testing this school year.

On April 2, State Board of Education President Linda Darling Hammond and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond sent a letter to Ian Rosenblum, the deputy assistant secretary handling this matter, asking for written confirmation of conversations that California would not need a general waiver for it to proceed with its academic testing plan. Ultimately, U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona would have to approve the decision.

Also on Friday, State Board of Education officials briefed state legislative aides and others in the education community about the likelihood of districts being able to use alternative assessments this year.

California’s plan would still offer the state’s Smarter Balanced assessments in mathematics and English language arts, the California Science Test, as well as tests for English learners and other special populations.

But in situations where it is not viable for districts to administer those assessments due to challenges such as assuring Covid-19 safety or broadband limitations while students are at home, the policy would also permit school districts to select their own assessments if they met a set of criteria prescribed by the state. 

These assessments would have to be aligned with Common Core state standards; be available to assess students in grades 3-8 and 11; be uniformly administered across a grade span, school or district; and provide disaggregated results for parents, educators and the public.

It is not yet clear whether alternatives to the science test would be permitted.

California has already submitted a waiver request for other flexibilities, such as extending the timeline for all tests until July 30 and removing the consequences of having less than 95% participation, to the U.S. Department of Education for approval, according to Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the State Board of Education. Because those flexibilities along these lines were suggested by the federal officials in guidance issued on February 22, and have been agreed to in conversations with them, it is likely that the state will receive approval, state officials said. 

Darling-Hammond previously headed President Joe Biden’s transition team for education before his inauguration.

Some states, including New York, requested blanket waivers to remove any obligation for standardized testing, but the Biden administration has said no to that.

In March, California’s State Board of Education approved its plan to seek a waiver that would allow districts to choose a diagnostic, benchmark or other interim assessment where it is not viable to administer the state summative assessments and laid out its criteria for alternatives.

And last November, the state board approved a shortened version of the Smarter Balanced math and English language arts tests. Remote proctoring tools were also built into the Smarter Balanced testing system.

The California State Board of Education did not submit a general waiver with the local assessment options because it was told by Secretary Cardona’s office that it would not be necessary given the state still has plans to offer the statewide Smarter Balanced assessments, according to Brooks Allen, executive director of the State Board of Education.

After the U.S. Department of Education responds to the state’s request, California school districts will receive communication from the California Department of Education with more information about what will be accepted, Allen said.

In the meantime, many districts have moved ahead with their own plans for assessing students.

As of March 17, nearly 14,000 English language arts and 8,000 mathematics Smarter Balanced assessments were underway. In addition, 11,000 California Science Tests are underway and 9,200 are completed, according to Mao Vang, director for the Assessment Development and Administration Division at the California Department of Education.

Fresno Unified School District in the Central Valley moved forward with plans to use the Smarter Balanced tests, but keeping its local assessment choice, i-Ready, as a top choice if the Smarter Balanced test isn’t a viable option for the district. The district has already been using i-Ready assessments throughout the pandemic to check in on students and provide academic feedback to parents.

There, administrators were preparing for both the Smarter Balanced test and i-Ready, and Scherrer said they would prefer to use i-Ready because the district has already grown familiar with it in a distance learning setting.

“When Covid hit and we had to close, i-Ready was already in our system, and we were able to pivot to use those diagnostics. That’s been really helpful having a constant temperature check on where students are in both ELA and mathematics,” said Andrew Scherrer, executive director of equity and access at Fresno Unified.

Other districts, including West Contra Costa Unified in the East Bay Area, have been reluctant to move forward with any testing plans while the waiver was still in limbo and cases of Covid-19 in some local communities remained high. Many districts struggled to nail down a plan for assessing students who could be either learning from home or in person.

“Right now we are just focused on the ELPAC (English Language Proficiency Assessments for California), and that is landing with mixed reviews,” Rubén Aurelio, chief academic officer for West Contra Costa Unified, said in early March referring to California’s English language proficiency test for English learners. “We question the validity of the assessments in this environment of course, but we are doing it.”

California school districts won’t be limited to a specific set of tests to choose from, but selected assessments must meet a set of criteria, including being aligned to the state’s academic standards. Results would also have to be made public, regardless of the tests that are used. 

About 77% of school districts said they used one of five local assessments during the 2020-21 school year already, according to a survey conducted in March by the California Department of Education, which reached 969 districts. Those include Star Assessments by Renaissance, i-Ready by Curriculum Associates, Measures of Academic Progress by NWEA, FastBridge by Illuminate Education and Reading Inventory by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

While many parents, researchers and education advocacy groups have applauded the U.S. Department of Education’s decision to require standardized testing this year, other groups such as the California Teachers Association have pushed back. Many have raised concerns about the validity of data collected after a traumatizing year, and while many students remain in a mix of reopening scenarios.

Allen said he shares concerns that the data could be a misrepresentation if districts use different assessments or participation rate is lower, but overall he was pleased that the state may not require a waiver. But so far, the state has not been asked to provide a measure of comparability between districts, he said.

“When we look at all of this we want to make sure we have meaningful information, valid and reliable information about where students are,” Allen said. “The path that’s been carved forward provides the opportunity to do that.”

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  1. Dr. Bill Conrad 4 months ago4 months ago

    Letting local school districts use their own local assessments to gauge student academic growth only contributes to the toxic fog within K-12 Education in California. The fog has the added benefit of letting the state and counties off the hook for an semblance of accountability. The political need to satisfy everyone resonates with a State Board that promoted a Balanced Approach to Reading instead of insisting on the scientific approach to teaching reading resulting only 1/2 … Read More

    Letting local school districts use their own local assessments to gauge student academic growth only contributes to the toxic fog within K-12 Education in California.

    The fog has the added benefit of letting the state and counties off the hook for an semblance of accountability.

    The political need to satisfy everyone resonates with a State Board that promoted a Balanced Approach to Reading instead of insisting on the scientific approach to teaching reading resulting only 1/2 of 3rd graders meeting reading proficiency levels and only 1 out of 5 Black third graders.

    In K-12 education, it is all about self before service and loyalty above competency.

    Where are the children? We need you to start organizing against this nonsense!

    http://sipbigpicture.com

  2. Doug McRae 4 months ago4 months ago

    Another option for students/parents, schools, and even entire districts unable or unwilling to administer shortened Smarter Balanced ELA and Math this spring or summer, would be to extend the 2021 test administration window from July 30 to fall 2021 (say, to the 1st 2 months of the 2021-22 school calendar for each district). The same Smarter Balanced tests administered spring/summer 2021 can be administered for a fall 2021 test administration window. This option would certainly … Read More

    Another option for students/parents, schools, and even entire districts unable or unwilling to administer shortened Smarter Balanced ELA and Math this spring or summer, would be to extend the 2021 test administration window from July 30 to fall 2021 (say, to the 1st 2 months of the 2021-22 school calendar for each district). The same Smarter Balanced tests administered spring/summer 2021 can be administered for a fall 2021 test administration window.

    This option would certainly generate valid, reliable, and meaningful data on student learning during Covid-19, far better data than attempting to use a mismatched collection of district adopted interim tests with no uniform prior year results upon which to calculate gain/loss data. The fall testing window option is one of the flexibility tactics suggested by the feds in their Feb. 22 guidance letters to states.

  3. Tiffany Millen 4 months ago4 months ago

    This is a little more than "amended." The "facts" of the original article weren't actually facts. How completely irresponsible to publish an article without well-documented facts. I was a fool to trust such an article and share it with others so now my reputation is associated with this completely irresponsible 'journalism.' This is extremely upsetting to me. I'm not a journalist but I do typically fact-check my sources and I never should … Read More

    This is a little more than “amended.” The “facts” of the original article weren’t actually facts. How completely irresponsible to publish an article without well-documented facts. I was a fool to trust such an article and share it with others so now my reputation is associated with this completely irresponsible ‘journalism.’ This is extremely upsetting to me. I’m not a journalist but I do typically fact-check my sources and I never should have trusted this one.

    Replies

    • John Fensterwald 4 months ago4 months ago

      Tiffany, I can understand your frustration, but in the initial article, we reported what State Board officials stated at the time of publication. We then did an update once we had more information. At EdSource, we do our best to report information quickly and accurately, and take fact-checking seriously. Thanks for your comment.