California school officials push for standardized testing waiver amid Covid-19 spike

January 14, 2021

California State Board of Education members on Wednesday expressed support for efforts to see a statewide waiver for standardized testing in 2021.

As Covid-19 cases continue to soar in California, a majority of the State Board of Education is now in favor of pursuing a waiver from the federal government that would remove the obligation to carry out standardized testing for the second year in a row.

The board is grappling with what to do about standardized tests like the Smarter Balanced assessments in math and English language arts that students in certain grades are required to take each spring. The U.S. Department of Education waived federal testing requirements following abrupt school closures for in-person instruction in March 2020 due to the pandemic, but this school year, the department intends to resume requiring testing. Now, as California faces the largest daily number of cases it’s experienced yet, State Board of Education members say they want a testing waiver to be made available for states.

“It would be educational malpractice to require LEAs (local education agencies) to provide results of assessments that really are seriously in jeopardy of being valid going forward,” said State Board of Education member Sue Burr, during a public meeting on Wednesday. “It’s important to make a strong statement about how we feel about that.”

The state board did not vote on the issue of waivers at the meeting on Wednesday, but it was discussed at length and nine out of 11 members said they would support a waiver if it became an option. Board President Linda Darling-Hammond did not publicly share a specific stance on Wednesday. However, a report she authored in October expressed the need for schools during the pandemic to avoid “overtesting” and emphasize shorter, more frequent assessments that teachers can quickly use to inform instruction, known as formative assessments, over high-level end-of-the-year exams that are primarily used for holding districts accountable for learning, known as summative assessments.

The board did not discuss next steps for seeking a waiver from the annual tests, which is also required by California state law. Gov. Gavin Newsom would also need to waive state requirements for the standardized tests in math, English language arts and science, which he did through an executive order in 2020.

Darling-Hammond, who is a top education advisor on the transition team for President-elect Joe Biden, said that alternative measures of academic progress and accountability, such as engagement, attendance, and access to courses, have “come up quite a bit” in discussions with the team.

States are required to administer an annual test in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. In November, following an announcement from the U.S Department of Education that testing would again be required, the board voted to shorten this year’s Smarter Balanced exams in math and English language arts in an effort to mitigate challenges with administering the test at a time when a majority of schools in the state are still in distance learning.

But Covid-19 cases and deaths have continued to climb in the winter months, causing nearly every board member to express deep concern over potentially bringing students back to campus to administer tests, along with the reliability of scores and data given the amount of variables students would face taking tests at home.

“In L.A. County right now, every minute 10 people are identified as positive,” said Vice President Ilene W. Straus. “It’s not likely we are going back anytime soon until these numbers go down and things are safe for students and teachers. Once we are back to in-person learning, first reconnect with them, and then think about assessment.”

Another major concern is getting enough students to participate in the exam during the pandemic. States are expected to have at least 95% of students take the exam, a threshold Straus called “completely unrealistic” for this spring.

“There are a lot of parents that won’t be willing to add (testing) to the stress level,” board member Matt Navo added.

The likelihood of incoming Education Secretary Miguel Cordona offering waivers once he replaces former Education Secretary Betsy DeVos remains unclear.

“We cannot act on anything that has to do with waivers at this moment,” Darling-Hammond said. “We need to wait for the new administration to arrive.”

During Wednesday’s meeting, several other ideas were discussed in lieu of a waiver. Darling-Hammond suggested extending the school year to offer districts more time to prepare for the tests, while others proposed moving tests to next fall or leaning on interim assessments that districts could lead themselves, similar to what took place in the years between the start of Smarter Balanced tests in 2015 and the phasing out of the previous standardized tests.

While many were in support of putting pressure on the federal government to change its decision about waivers this school year, several board members agreed that there would still be a need to assess students and measure learning loss and disparities that may have been exacerbated by the pandemic.

“Testing offers a much clearer view of the degree to which learning loss is not consistent and to know where it is most acute and have the capacity to pinpoint that and address it is a valuable tool we should not give up on,” said board member Kim Pattillo Brownson.

Pattillo Brownson also referred to data that has shown many California parents desire more feedback on how their child is doing academically. Sixty-seven percent of parents said they would like information from state tests to know if their child is meeting grade-level expectations, according to a poll education nonprofit EdTrust-West released in October.

But, the same poll also found that a lack of reliable internet was a top concern among families, a major challenge for administering the tests at home. With Covid-19 cases at an all-time high in California, several groups present at Wednesday’s meeting said inviting students with poor internet connections back to campus for tests could be a safety risk.

For months the California Teachers Association has been outspoken about the challenges of requiring standardized testing in the spring, even with a shortened exam. CTA representatives on Wednesday echoed the requests for the state board to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education.

“As of this morning, Imperial County, where I am seated, has a 39% Covid positivity rate” said board member Haydee Rodriguez. “It’s having a devastating effect on our students, their social-emotional well-being, and teachers have reached out to me with concerns about the test and the effect it would have on our students. I am in support of a waiver. If we don’t get the waiver, we must ensure the results of the assessment are used for information perhaps to direct funding, so we can support our students when we go back to class.”

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