U.S. Education Department will not provide assessment waivers
Introduces testing flexibility in light of the pandemic
Stack of papers with a blur filter
The U.S. Department of Education issued a letter ( on Feb. 22 announcing that the department will not issue a blanket waiver for assessment, accountability and reporting requirements for the 2020–21 school year will not be waived. The letter says that assessments are needed to “understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need. We must also specifically be prepared to address the educational inequities that have been exacerbated by the pandemic, including by using student learning data to enable states, school districts, and schools to target resources and supports to the students with the greatest needs. In addition, parents need information on how their children are doing.”

The department acknowledged the difficulties brought on by the pandemic and will offer significant flexibility for the 2020–21 school year:

  • Accountability and school identification. States may request a waiver from the accountability and school identification requirements. Each state that receives the accountability and school identification waivers would be required to continue to support previously identified schools in the 2021–22 school year, resume school identification in the fall of 2022 and ensure transparency to parents and the public, including publicly reporting the percentage of students not assessed, disaggregated by student subgroup.
  • Transparency and public reporting. All state and local report card requirements are still in effect, including the requirements to disaggregate data by student subgroup (except for reporting related to accountability, such as school ratings). As a condition of waiving accountability and school identification requirements, all states will be required to publicly report disaggregated chronic absenteeism data and, to the extent the state or school district already collects such information, data on student and educator access to technology devices like laptops or tablets and to high-speed internet at home.
  • If a school or school district cannot safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices, flexibilities states can consider include:
  • Administering a shortened version of its statewide assessments;
  • Offering remote administration, where feasible; and/or
  • Extending the testing window to the greatest extent practicable. That could include offering multiple testing windows and/or extending the testing window into the summer or even the beginning of the 2021–22 school year. States that elect to extend testing windows should also consider how they can make results available to the public in a timely manner after assessments are administered.
Response from California
In anticipation of standardized assessments being required for the 2020–21 school year, the California State Board of Education in its November meeting unanimously approved the use of shorter standardized tests in English language arts and math this spring. The shorter assessments will reduce student testing time, which now takes from seven to eight hours in total. Guidance regarding test administration will include flexible options to meet the unique contexts of each district or school.

The tests will cover all academic standards, which describe what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Spring testing will provide the first statewide snapshot of the impact of COVID-19 on student learning.

“Because we have been supporting and encouraging districts to use formative and diagnostic assessments this fall, schools will have data to guide individual student learning. Meanwhile, a shorter summative test can provide a more manageable way to offer district and state-level information in these unpredictable times,” said State Board President Linda Darling-Hammond in a statement.

Preparing for the implementation of standardized testing does not mean the California Department of Education supports the Biden administration’s move to require administering statewide assessments. In a lengthy response issued as a press release, State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond expressed his deep disappointment with the decision, citing not only the challenges of the pandemic, but the inequities at the very core of standardized testing.

“Standardized tests are imperfect measures at best and often provide snapshots of student performance that are far too narrow to help educators in any given year, let alone during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic,” Thurmond’s statement began. “Most years, the results of statewide testing simply reflect the deep and systemic inequities that have placed generations of students at a historic, ongoing academic disadvantage. Those are the students whose families have been hit hardest by COVID-19 — households in poverty and communities of color — and every resource dedicated to taking a test is a resource that could be better spent on helping students recover from this crisis and accelerate learning.

“The most valuable metrics we can use to understand a student’s academic progress will always remain the ones that are collected by educators and schools on a regular, ongoing basis in classrooms — even virtual ones — where individual relationships with students are fostered and strategies for support can be designed in real-time,” Thurmond continued. “The impacts of this pandemic have taught us the necessity of identifying and investing in better ways to measure learning that don’t involve high-stakes, costly testing that lines the pockets of a billion-dollar assessment industry. We should be looking for ways to reinvest in programs that support learning and offset gaps that have been exacerbated during the pandemic.”

The CDE will be making recommendations that urge the U.S. Department of Education to provide maximum flexibility to the state’s school districts by offering a range of testing timelines, including the option to delay assessments until the summer or fall if needed.