Last year in the height of the pandemic, schools did not have to administer standardized tests at all. This year, California won’t be test-free, but it will be test-lite.
Federal government officials have approved a plan that will allow California schools to opt out of Smarter Balanced statewide tests, which are mandatory in typical school years. Schools will only be allowed to opt out if administering the tests is “not viable,” because of the pandemic, according to a letter from U.S. Department of Education officials to California Department of Education officials obtained by Voice of San Diego.
If schools or districts opt out of the normal state tests, they will still be required to administer other alternative assessments that are aligned to California’s grade-level standards. The plan also allows schools to test less than 95 percent of students, a requirement in normal years.
Advocates of keeping testing requirements have argued it’s important to keep state tests in place, because it will help us understand what schools and populations have been hit hardest by learning loss. But those who wanted fewer or no testing requirements have said the results of the tests would be unreliable because of the uneven effects of the pandemic and the disrupted school year.
Here are the big questions: How will state and district officials determine whether it is “not viable” for a district to administer the normal state tests?
Daniel Thigpen, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the department will issue guidance to school districts about what constitutes viability in the coming weeks. School districts will then be allowed to make their own determinations about whether to administer the normal state tests, he said.
Department officials haven’t yet settled on exactly what that guidance will look like, but Thigpen did give some examples of situations where it would be viable or not viable to administer the regular tests.
A district that has major internet connectivity problems, for example, might consider it not viable to administer state tests because some students may still be learning at their homes. Low-income and rural areas are the most likely to not have good internet access.
Another example, said Thigpen, would be schools that have just returned to in-person learning.
“If you’re in the first week back to physical, in-person school, the last thing we want to do is bring students back to school just to take an assessment,” he said.
That particular example shouldn’t affect schools returning to campus in the coming weeks. That’s because this year, districts have received an extension that gives them until July 30 to administer the regular tests.
San Diego Unified will send many students back to the classroom next week on April 12.
Another point to consider: Smarter Balanced assessments can be administered online. That means, in theory, schools with a mixture of online-only and in-person students could still give the tests.
Schools and districts will still have to report the results of their alternative assessments if they don’t take part in the Smarter Balanced tests. Those results will also have to be broken down by subgroups, such as race, income level and disability status.
Alternate assessments that track how well a student is doing in her mastery of grade-level concepts are common. Schools normally use these types of assessments throughout the year to track a student’s progress. These assessments can vary among districts and even among schools within a single district, which will make comparisons on academic growth difficult if not impossible when the results are released.
The new testing plan also “decouples state assessments from federal accountability requirements,” as one state Department of Education press release put it.
Federal accountability requirements have massively decreased since the time of No Child Left Behind, a President George W. Bush–era federal law that tied funding to school performance. Schools that performed poorly for consecutive years could lose funding or even be converted into charter schools. Those laws have quietly dropped off the books in recent years.
One of the last remaining vestiges of accountability is a list that states must publish each year of their worst-performing schools. In California, schools must perform poorly across a wide range of metrics, including absenteeism and suspension, to be added to the list. In other words, schools can’t just be added for test scores.
This year, the state will not be required to update its list, since there will be no common assessment used across the state. But the list will have to be updated in future years, according to another letter from the U.S. Department of Education to the state.