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Aurora Institute

U.S. Department of Education Issues State Guidance on Assessments This School Year Amid Pandemic 

Education Domain Blog


K-12 schools must administer annual standardized tests for the 2020-2021 school year, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) announced in late February, but the agency will offer additional flexibility that balances concerns expressed by a group of diverse stakeholders, including district leaders, teacher unions, parents, advocates, and lawmakers.

Flexibility Offered

In a letter to chief state school officers outlining its plans, the ED said the Biden Administration’s priority is to reopen schools safely. To be successful in doing so, “we need to understand the impact COVID-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and supports students need.”

Although states must give exams and report summative assessment data, ED’s guidance provides considerable flexibility regarding who will take tests and when and how they will be administered. States can extend the testing window through the summer or fall of 2021 instead of this spring. Additionally, schools can allow tests to be administered remotely, and states can significantly shorten the length of the assessments. Schools will also not be required to meet the usual 95 percent student test participation rate required under current law.

Perhaps most significant is that ED’s guidance will free districts from several high-stakes accountability provisions tied to testing results, meaning states will not have to calculate individual school accountability scores, nor will states have to identify their lowest-achieving schools during the 2020-2021 school year.

States will nevertheless have to report on indicators like chronic absenteeism and, to the extent possible, information about students’ ability to secure devices and access the internet for remote instruction. States will also need to report the percentage of students who could not take the year-end tests and offer that information drilled down by subgroup status.

Balanced Assessment Systems & Reimagined Accountability

Assessments and accountability metrics are among many important elements to evaluate learning and school performance. Their transparency is critical in informing parents and communities about what students know and can do. The pandemic, however, requires creativity, adaptability, and grace, as most schools are still unable to provide full-time in-person learning for all students and can’t safely offer assessments.

The timing is ripe to pilot balanced and more innovative systems of assessments. These are the very reasons we should create space for states to run multiple pilots for innovative assessments using balanced systems that can more accurately measure knowledge, skills, and ability in real-time and from year-to-year. These new models could result in students building a portfolio of evidence, schools and districts creating better data models, and districts adopting personalized instruction being able to meet students where they are, especially in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

At this critical juncture in our nation’s history, we implore the federal government and states to grow the number of innovative districts to identify new data models through assessment pilots. The use of student achievement records and portfolios that collect evidence of student learning and data from balanced assessment systems will capture a more robust set of information on student learning over time. We also believe that a more innovative approach to assessments and other forms of student data collection could help target resources and improve equity.

Action Steps

The pandemic presents an opportunity for federal, state, and district leaders to rethink the role assessments play at each level to develop personalized learning plans for every student, continuously monitor students’ progress over time, and advance equity. Moving forward, states should reshape assessment policies to enable models that provide valuable feedback throughout the process of teaching and learning. The following are policy recommendations to provide a more comprehensive, balanced assessment system to gauge student learning and improve quality.

  • Remove barriers for states to participate in the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA) by lifting the seven-state cap;
  • Make funding available, such as in Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESSA), for states to plan, develop, and improve on innovative systems of assessments;
  • Create a state task force with diverse stakeholders to reimagine the state assessment system, leveraging flexibility in ESSA toward balanced systems of assessments; and
  • Design a state pilot balanced assessment system that includes multiple types of assessments (including performance assessments).