Amid Pandemic, DeVos Announces One-Year Testing and Accountability Waiver. Here’s a Look at What to Expect
March 20 update: In light of the coronavirus pandemic, 24 states have decided to postpone or cancel spring testing. To address this issue, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has announced that the U.S. Department of Education will grant a one-year waiver for standardized testing to any state that submits a proper request.
DeVos explained in a press release that students should be focusing on their health and education, while teachers need to be able to concentrate on remote learning and other necessary adjustments. Therefore, high-stakes tests should not be a priority during this difficult time.
Leaders in state education have praised this decision. Carissa Moffat Miller, who heads the Council of Chief State School Officers, commended Secretary DeVos and President Trump for being responsive to the needs of students, educators, and communities.
Additionally, Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has introduced legislation that would grant DeVos the authority to issue "national emergency waivers" to free states from various requirements under federal education law. However, the legislation emphasizes that applicable civil rights laws cannot be waived, and Secretary DeVos must inform Congress within 30 days of the law’s enactment whether waivers are necessary from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a law that governs special education.
High-stakes standardized testing has been a controversial issue in education policy over the past two decades. Parents worry about the negative impact of testing on their children’s education, arguing that it replaces holistic curricula with rote learning. Teachers are concerned about how their job evaluations and compensation are tied to test scores. Activists also claim that exams distort school incentives and hinder learning. Many stakeholders, therefore, advocate for the elimination or significant reduction of mandatory state tests.
However, the rapid spread of the coronavirus has made it clear that 2020 will not be a typical year for testing. A large number of states, including California, Florida, and New York, have either canceled or requested federal approval to cancel this year’s tests. Most states are seeking waivers from the Department of Education to be exempt from administering tests, as required by federal law. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, under pressure from state authorities, is reportedly considering a blanket, one-year waiver for all states.
Education commentators, such as political scientist Rick Hess, have urged Secretary DeVos to either cancel all 2020 testing or push Congress to take action. They argue that the well-being of students and communities should come before exams.
While canceling tests aligns with the efforts to combat the spread of the virus, it would come with significant costs. Since the passing of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the federal government has built a system of school oversight and accountability centered around test scores. This data informs educators, bureaucrats, and the public about the quality of schools. Additionally, testing provides valuable information for researchers studying the impact of policies such as Common Core and free lunch on students. Without a year of test data, researchers may face challenges and potentially hinder significant work.
Rick Hess explained in an interview that the logistical challenges and the risks to public health make spring testing impractical and too dangerous to pursue.
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An unforeseen development has raised a significant challenge for states that are required to collect annual scores under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. These scores are used to determine which schools need improvement or may even face closure. Due to the current circumstances and the added responsibilities of transitioning to online learning, state education leaders have requested relief from the Education Department. They have asked for guidance and a waiver process to skip tests without facing penalties.
The Education Department has indicated that they are working with state superintendents to provide support and flexibility during this national emergency, including expanding testing waivers. However, granting a blanket waiver could potentially create new legal issues. It raises questions about documenting progress for schools that have performed well and the missed opportunity for improvement for schools at risk of closure. Inconsistency will likely be prevalent due to different state practices and varying impacts of the outbreak on different communities.
Without testing in 2020, states are left with three options. They can either use last year’s data in their accountability system, estimate scores based on projected percentile rankings, or wait until the fall to administer tests if schools have resumed by then. Each option has drawbacks, such as autumn testing disadvantaging schools prone to learning loss over the summer.
While foregoing assessments has been done at the state level before, the current situation is unique. The unexpected outbreak has raised concerns among policymakers and researchers about the cancellation of testing and its implications on education policy and student growth measures for future years.
In an ideal world, decisions about schools would be informed by rigorous research. However, test scores have traditionally been a crucial component of this research. Social scientists heavily rely on data provided by states to analyze the impact of various actions taken by schools. Without this data, their work will be significantly hindered.
Economist Joshua Goodman expressed his regret over the loss of insight from state exams in 2020, as test scores have been integral to his studies. Even if some districts or states manage to conduct testing, the disruption caused by the coronavirus would make the results difficult to use effectively.
Hess mentioned that suspending testing could potentially weaken ongoing studies, although most studies would not rely solely on one year of scores. He also expressed his belief that the overemphasis on reading and math scores in research should be reevaluated, and that exploring other outcomes would not necessarily be a negative outcome.
The impact of the coronavirus on research projects will undoubtedly be complex, but it may also present an opportunity for a natural experiment. This unique event provides a chance to evaluate how schools and communities have dealt with a rare and highly disruptive situation, such as an epidemic.
Considering the uncertain trends in global economics and climate, it could be valuable to understand the consequences of such disruptions. Goodman acknowledged that COVID-19 would not bring much positivity, but it could still offer a valuable learning experience.
While some research questions may become unanswerable due to the lack of data, this situation will also open up numerous new research projects. It will prompt us to consider how schools and municipalities can help children become more resilient to major shocks like this, which hopefully only occur once in a lifetime. Additionally, it will shed light on smaller setbacks, such as the loss of a family member or unemployment, which are more common. This can be seen as a small silver lining in a difficult situation.