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Top DeVos Deputy: Our 'Instinct' Is to Not Give States Testing Waivers Next Year

An assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education said Friday that his agency's inclination is not to grant states waivers from federally mandated tests for the upcoming school year like it did in the spring.

Speaking on a video call with reporters at the Education Writers Association's National Seminar, Jim Blew, the assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy analysis, stressed the importance of testing beyond accountability. And he expressed support for a recent statement from the Council of Chief State School Officers about the importance of assessments for learning; that July 20 statement said that "even during a pandemic" assessments "serve as an important tool in our education system."

In March, as schools shut down in-person classes around the country due to the coronavirus pandemic, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos quickly granted waivers to all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico from having to administer certain annual exams as required by federal law. But concerns about the pandemic's impact on the 2020-21 school year have grown, as have sentiments in some quarters that states should get those waivers again, in order to focus on other educational needs.

Last month, for example, Georgia announced it would seek such a waiver from testing for the upcoming year. In a joint statement, Gov. Brian Kemp and State School Superintendent Richard Woods, both Republicans, said that giving such tests would be "counterproductive" and added that, "In anticipation of a return to in-person instruction this fall, we believe schools' focus should be on remediation, growth, and the safety of students. Every dollar spent on high-stakes testing would be a dollar taken away from the classroom."

South Carolina announced plans last month to do the same

But during a question-and-answer session with reporters, Blew pointed to CCSSO's statement and said that with respect to testing, "Accountability aside, we need to know where students are so we can address their needs."

Blew then indicated it would be premature to grant waivers at this time from testing and said, "Our instinct would not be to give those waivers" from the exams, which are mandated under the Every Student Succeeds Act, the main federal K-12 law. "There are so many benefits to testing and it allows for some transparency about how schools are performing and the issues we need to address, that our instinct would be to decline those waivers," Blew added.

The question of what to do about testing and a related subject—accountability—next year is garnering more attention from policy experts and others. On Friday, writing for the Center for Assessment's website, the center's Executive Director Scott Marion and Ajit Gopalakrishnan called for education officials to "suspend standard accountability" for the 2020-21 academic year, but to still give statewide achievement tests to "help us monitor the long-term trends in student achievement and growth."

Marion and Gopalakrishnan suggested focusing on several issues to help create "re-envisioned accountability" next year, including:

  • "School districts' plans to ensure the health and safety of students."
  • "Schools and districts' research-based plans to address students' social and emotional needs."
  • "School districts' assurances that all students, whether in-person or remote, have legitimate access to high-quality curriculum and instruction."
  • "States' and districts' evidence that all students have access to dependable internet access and devices."

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