The Education Department said Monday that it will not allow states to forgo federally required standardized testing in schools this year but will give them flexibility to delay testing or hold it online during the pandemic.
Aiming for a middle ground in a polarized debate, the Biden administration said states must continue with annual testing but can apply to be exempted from certain accountability measures tied to the results.
States also will be allowed to move tests to the summer or fall, or they can offer shortened tests or online assessments.
In a letter to state education chiefs on Monday, Ian Rosenblum, an acting assistant education secretary, said testing will help schools understand the impact of the pandemic and how to help students.
“In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing,” he said.
The move aligns with proposals from Democrats who have pushed for testing to identify and address learning setbacks, but who say schools should not be penalized for falling short of goals. But it was blasted by Republicans and by some teachers unions.
The American Federation of Teachers, one of the nation’s major teachers unions, called it a “frustrating turn.” Randi Weingarten, the union’s president, said federal tests should have been canceled and replaced by locally created evaluations.
“We have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child’s development, nor do they particularly help kids or inform best practices for teaching and learning,” Weingarten said. “That is especially true in these unprecedented times.”
States including New York and Michigan previously said they would apply to be waived from testing this year, and several other states signaled plans to follow. Republicans in Congress also opposed testing and called for a blanket exemption for all states.
Federal law requires states to test students each year in subjects including math and reading as a way to gauge schools’ progress and to identify learning disparities among different groups of students.
The Trump administration allowed all states to forgo tests last year, but then-Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rejected calls to issue another blanket waiver for this year.
In a September letter to state education chiefs, DeVos said parents deserve to know how their children are performing even during a pandemic. Failing to test would “have a lasting effect for years to come,” she wrote.
But other Republicans have questioned the need for testing this year. At a hearing this month with Miguel Cardona, President Joe Biden’s nominee for education secretary, Sen. Richard Burr, R-N.C., urged against assessments.
Burr called for a conversation to consider “whether we need to pause for one more year the accountability and testing requirements as we grapple with the pandemic.”
Cardona countered that, without testing, it would be difficult for schools to know where to focus their efforts as they help students recover. But he also opposed a “one size fits all” solution and appeared to support flexibility.
“I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them on standardized tests,” Cardona said.
The Biden administration’s new guidance tells states that, although testing in some form will be required, they can apply for waivers to be exempt from accountability measures related to the federally required testing.
Test results would not be used to measure progress toward long-term goals, for example, and it would not be used to identify struggling schools. It also would waive a requirement that states administer tests to at least 95% of students.
States will still be required to publicly share school report cards showing how students performed at the state and local levels, with breakdowns by race and other student characteristics.
It adds that “as a condition” of the flexibility, schools must report new data showing how many students are persistently absent, and other data on their access to computers and home internet.
Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., the ranking Republican on the House education committee, condemned the Biden administration for offering flexibility “in exchange for states’ acceptance of unrelated new requirements.” She urged Biden to take stronger action to reopen schools.
“Families are demanding it and students desperately need it,” Foxx said in a statement. “And where flexibility with federal requirements is needed, I call on the president to offer them without conditions as the law requires.”
In its Monday letter, the administration said it would work with states that may need “additional assessment flexibility” based on the conditions in their areas.
“Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test,” the letter said.