AnalysisCoronavirus  

Amid Pandemic, DeVos Announces One-Year Testing and Accountability Waiver. Here’s a Look at What to Expect

By Kevin Mahnken | March 19, 2020

March 20 update: Following the actions of 24 states to postpone or cancel spring testing in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced Friday that the U.S. Department of Education would grant a one-year standardized testing waiver to any state that submitted “a proper request” for one.

In a press release announcing the decision, DeVos said, “Students need to be focused on staying healthy and continuing to learn. Teachers need to be able to focus on remote learning and other adaptations. Neither students nor teachers need to be focused on high-stakes tests during this difficult time.”

State education leaders applauded the move. Carissa Moffat Miller, head of the Council of Chief State School Officers, praised both Secretary DeVos and President Trump for “being responsive to CCSSO and states in taking this critical step that ensures state leaders can focus more time on serving the needs of their students, educators and community members.”

Separately, Republican U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell introduced legislation Thursday that would grant DeVos the authority to issue “national emergency waivers” releasing states from many requirements under federal education law. The secretary would be prohibited from waiving “applicable civil rights laws under the legislation” but would be required to inform Congress within 30 days of the bill’s enactment whether she believed waivers were also necessary from the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, the nation’s foremost law governing special education.

Of the myriad ways in which education policy has transformed schools over the past two decades, none has birthed more enemies than high-stakes standardized testing.

Parents fret about their test-averse kids and complain that holistic curricula are being replaced with drill-and-kill. Harried teachers worry about professional evaluations that tie their job security and compensation to scores. And many activists claim that an overreliance on exams has distorted schools’ incentives in ways that harm learning. Increasingly, it seems, a coalition of reformers, families and educators would prefer to see the end of state-mandated tests, or at least a significant diminishing of their importance.

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As the saying goes, be careful what you wish for.

In the midst of the fast-spreading coronavirus pandemic, it has become clear that 2020 will not see a typical round of assessments. Nineteen states, including California, Florida and New York, have either canceled this year’s testing or are asking for federal approval to do so, according to a tracker published by Education Week. Most are seeking a waiver from the Department of Education to abstain from administering tests, a requirement under federal education law; while those waivers are typically granted on a state-by-state basis, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos is reportedly considering a blanket, one-year waiver, under significant pressure from state authorities.

The rapid movement matches a tone of growing urgency stoked by education commentators like the political scientist and prolific scribe Rick Hess, who implored DeVos this week to either nix all 2020 testing or “forcefully urge” Congress to take that action. The safety of students and their communities must come before exams, they argue.

Such a drastic move would be in keeping with the steps already taken to combat the virus’s spread. In recent weeks, nearly 100,000 schools in 41 states have been closed, are scheduled to close, or have closed and reopened, a mass demobilization that has affected 43.9 million children.

But a cancellation could bring enormous costs. Beginning with the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act in 2002, the federal government has built a colossal mechanism of school oversight and accountability principally around the availability of test scores. That data is the coin of the education realm, informing educators, bureaucrats and the public at large about which schools are serving students well and which are failing.

Moreover, testing provides an invaluable trove of information to researchers studying how a range of policies — from Common Core to free lunch — impact kids. According to Marty West, a Harvard professor of education, it has become “increasingly common” for academics to rely on longitudinal data systems to power their studies. Going without a year of inputs would introduce a huge blind spot, he said, potentially sabotaging groundbreaking work.

“State tests are certainly the most common outcome variable for all manner of intervention studies. That means that if you are planning to wrap up a multi-year study of an intervention this spring, you’re going to be out of luck.”

But the downside risks now look unavoidable. In an interview with The 74, Hess said that the logistical challenges alone made spring testing a prohibitively complex endeavor and that the danger to public health was too great to take chances.

“It’s not just a question of, ‘Kids have been displaced, the scores are going to be problematized, how do we do this? It’s that we literally don’t want people getting close to one another because it risks lives.”

‘A totally unexpected development’

The primary challenge posed by a year without testing would be faced by states, all of which must collect scores each year under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. That data is plugged into accountability frameworks that determine which schools must be targeted for improvement or, in especially serious cases, closed entirely.

With a cavalcade of new responsibilities falling on their shoulders, including the frenzied push to transform their schools into online learning hubs, state education leaders have petitioned the Education Department for relief. The Council of Chief State School Officers has asked for further guidance from Secretary DeVos, including an expedited waiver process that would allow them to skip tests without facing penalties.

In an email, an Education Department spokeswoman said the federal government was working with state superintendents to provide “the support and flexibility they need during this national emergency, which includes expanding testing waivers. We will have more details on those additional flexibilities in the coming days.”

But a blanket waiver releasing states from this obligation might solve one legal problem while creating countless others. For schools that have performed well this year, will their progress be documented? For those at risk of closure, have they lost an opportunity to demonstrate improvement? With each state governed by different practices, and some communities feeling the effects of the outbreak more severely than others, inconsistency will likely be the rule of the day.

Tom Kane, a Harvard professor and the faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research, said states would be faced with three options in the absence of 2020 testing: either to simply plug last year’s data into their accountability framework, to estimate scores by projecting that students would maintain their same percentile ranking as in 2019, or to wait to administer tests until the fall — assuming schools are back in session by then.

Each option comes with significant drawbacks. Schools particularly susceptible to “summer slide” (the tendency for students, particularly those from disadvantaged families, to lose their achievement gains over the summer) would be disadvantaged by a round of autumn testing, for instance.

The idea of foregoing assessments is not without precedent, at least at the state level. When California was piloting the new, Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced exams in 2015, the state announced with little notice that it would not calculate student-level scores. That amounted, in essence, to a “snow year for testing,” Kane observed, though it “was different from the current crisis.”

West agreed, calling the coronavirus outbreak “a totally unexpected development” fundamentally distinct from events in previous years. A member of the Massachusetts Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, he said that student safety and access to vital services was his top concern but that he was disturbed by the prospect of a testing cancellation hanging over multiple years of education policy.

“What’s most concerning to me as a policymaker, but also as a researcher, is that many states … are in the process of developing or implementing new school accountability systems, most of which incorporate measures of student growth over time,” he said. “Not having the state tests this year has implications not just for our ability to look at how schools are doing this academic year, but also for our ability to provide measures of student growth for next academic year.”

‘A very small silver lining’

In an ideal world, decisions about schools would be informed by rigorous research examining the question of what works for kids. Particularly in the wake of the accountability era sparked by No Child Left Behind, education policy has seemed to reside in that world — or at least keep a time-share there — as state regulators have used an abundance of academic data to shape their priorities.

Most often, however, test scores are the engine behind that research. A cadre of social scientists depends on mountains of information provided by states to analyze the effect of every action that schools take: starting the school day later, employing Teach for America corps members, reducing out-of-school suspensions, providing tutoring, and a thousand other interventions. Without that data, even for a year, their work will be set back.

Joshua Goodman, an economist at Brandeis University, said he would lament the loss of insight from state exams in 2020, noting that he’d “used test scores, in some fashion, in nearly every study I’ve ever done.” But even if some districts or states were able to conduct a version of their normal spring testing, he said, the footprint of the coronavirus disruption would make the results almost impossible to use effectively.

“Normally, we’re using these scores to understand the state of students’ learning, to identify schools that are struggling or succeeding, or teachers that are struggling or succeeding,” Goodman said. “But the scores always reflect some combination of what schools are doing as well as what’s going on in a student’s life outside of school. Given the magnitude of this shock, the fraction of the scores that is related to stuff outside of school is so much larger.”

Hess said that a testing shutdown could weaken studies already in the field but that most wouldn’t be dependent on a single year of scores. And, he added, that might not be such a catastrophe.

“It’s certainly a problem for researchers who want to use these numbers, but I’m personally concerned that too much of the research agenda is driven by reading and math scores, so I think that forcing folks to look at other outcomes besides reading and math tests would not be the worst thing,” he said.

And while the effects of coronavirus will undoubtedly complicate ongoing research projects, they may also set the stage for a kind of natural experiment — a chance to judge how schools and communities have coped with a rare and massively disruptive event like an epidemic.

Given the unknowable trends in global economics and climate, it may be profitable to understand the impact of such disruptions. Goodman cautioned that “very little good will come from COVID-19,” but he noted that it could provide a learning opportunity.

“Though I think there’s going to be a set of research questions that are rendered unanswerable by the lack of data, like it or not, this is going to open up a huge number of new research projects and get us thinking about what schools and municipalities can do to help kids be more resilient to both shocks of this magnitude — which we hope are once-in-a-lifetime shocks — but also smaller-level setbacks that are much more common, whether it’s death in the family or job loss or anything else. That’s the very small silver lining.”

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