The U.S. Department of Education notified California this week that the state’s request for relief from certain federal testing, accountability, and reporting requirements has been granted.
In a letter to State Superintendent Tony Thurmond and State Board President Linda Darling-Hammond, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Policy and Programs Ian Rosenblum said he was “pleased to approve” California’s request.
“The intent of these accountability waivers is to focus on assessments to provide information to parents, educators, and the public about student performance and to help target resources and supports,” Rosenblum wrote. “This is particularly crucial this year, due to the COVID pandemic.”
In February, the State Board of Education voted to seek a waiver that would give schools the means to account for the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic in their ability to assess students. The Board’s action was in response to federal guidance allowing states to seek flexibility given that most students have yet to return to in-person instruction either part- or full-time.
The state also discussed its plan to give schools permission to report data from standards-aligned interim or diagnostic tests they have been using where it is not viable to administer the state summative assessments due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Unlike last year, the U.S. Department of Education did not invite states to apply for blanket waivers that would allow states to opt-out of annual testing altogether, citing the role testing data plays in supporting students.
As granted, California’s waiver:
Decouples state assessments from federal accountability requirements, as applicable. Instead, any data collected will be used to inform local educators, parents, and the public and align resources to student supports.
Waives federal penalties for student testing participation rates of less than 95 percent on the state’s Smarter Balanced English language arts and math. Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, all states that receive federal funds for low-income students and English learners must assess annual learning progress in math, language arts, science, and English learner language proficiency, as applicable.
At its November meeting, the State Board voted to approve shortened blueprints of the Smarter Balanced assessments in English language arts and math in order to administer shorter tests in these subjects during the 2020-21 school year.
The Board also extended the window by which schools must complete test administration to July 30 for the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), the English Language Assessments for California (ELPAC), which measures English learners’ progress toward language proficiency, and the California Science Test (CAST).
In a separate letter received this week, Rosenblum said California need not apply for another waiver, which the Board contemplated, because California is administering all of its required assessments and expecting they will be used except in cases where local conditions make the administration of the tests not viable.
With many of the state’s students still engaged in distance learning, both CDE and State Board staff have advised districts—as the federal guidance states—that students should not be brought back to in-person instruction solely for the purpose of standardized testing.
And in some cases, students still in remote learning may not be able to access the state’s summative tests because they lack secure browsers on their computers or sufficient bandwidth to meet the demands of the tests. In such a case, student assessment data could be provided through a high-quality interim or diagnostic test that meets Board-approved criteria.
“We remain committed to supporting all States in assessing the learning of all students,” Rosenblum wrote. “Obtaining data on student learning includes high-quality statewide assessments, which can help identify where opportunity gaps are persistent and have been exacerbated—particularly during the pandemic—and, along with other data, can help States direct resources and support to close those gaps.
“At the same time,” he continued, “we must also recognize that we are in the midst of a pandemic that requires real flexibility ... In cases where students are unable to take the statewide summative assessment, we hope that States and districts use other assessments to measure student learning and progress and to provide information to parents and educators. These interim, diagnostic, or formative assessments do not replace statewide summative assessments, but they can serve to provide valuable information to meet our goal of maximizing the number of students for whom we have quality data this year.”