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U.S. eases state rules on testing students; implications for Arkansas studied

by Cynthia Howell | February 24, 2021 at 7:12 a.m.
A classroom is shown in this 2015 file photo.

The U.S. Department of Education is offering states flexibility in how they give state and federally required exams this spring, but it won't be repeating 2020's blanket waivers of the testing requirement.

The federal agency has issued new guidance to the states about the required student testing, which in Arkansas includes a slate of tests, most notably the ACT Aspire tests, to be given to students in third through 10th grades in math, literacy and science.

The testing is part of the state's effort to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which is meant to hold schools and districts responsible for student learning.

In the spring of 2020, all 50 states requested and received federal waivers of the testing requirements. The coronavirus pandemic at the time was in its early stages. Arkansas and much of the nation in March hurriedly closed schools and shifted to virtual instruction in hopes of slowing the spread of the contagious and potentially fatal virus.

[DOCUMENT: Updated spring testing calendar »]

This school year, about 21%, or 97,000 of Arkansas' public school students, continue to learn virtually from their homes rather than on campus.

Some of those families have advocated for a waiver of testing this year or for allowing virtual students to test in their homes rather than testing at a different site.

The impact of the new federal guidance was not immediately clear for Arkansas, where state leaders have said previously that the Aspire tests will be given starting in April and, even if a federal wavier were to be offered, it would not be requested.

On Tuesday, Kimberly Mundell, a spokeswoman for the Arkansas Division of Elementary and Secondary Education, said the agency leaders are reviewing the federal guidance that was issued Monday night.

"We will look to see if there are additional ideas we can incorporate in our state assessment plans," Mundell said.

"However," she said, "we already are offering several of the flexibilities listed in the document."

Arkansas officials last month compiled and distributed an "assessment tool kit" to help school systems encourage families who have stayed away from campuses to participate in mandatory on-site testing.

The Division of Elementary and Secondary Education has expanded the window of time for doing the testing and has suggested other strategies to enable smaller groups to test at a time.

Those strategies include scheduling some testing for Saturdays, after-school hours or at alternative sites -- such as community centers. Also suggested are scheduling separate times and sites for on-site and virtual learners.

The state has also said the focus this year will not be so much on school-wide accountability but on identifying academic needs of individual students. State lawmakers have enacted law to forgo for the 2020-21 school year the application of A-to-F letter grades to schools based on results from the spring Aspire tests.

Ian Rosenblum of the federal office of elementary and secondary education, in a lengthy letter to chief state school officers, noted that "we need to understand the impact covid-19 has had on learning and identify what resources and support students need."

Student learning data from the tests will enable states, school districts and schools to identify the students with the greatest needs, Rosenblum said, and will give parents information on how their children are doing.

"We remain committed to supporting all states in assessing the learning of all students," he said, listing ways to accomplish that -- including the offer of a waiver for the 2020-21 school year of accountability and identification requirements as called for in the Every Student Succeeds Act.

"A state receiving this waiver would not be required to implement and report the results of its accountability system," he wrote.

Additionally, the waiver would relax the requirement that 95% of all eligible test-takers at a school take the exams or cause a school's accountability score to fall.

And the state would not be required to identify schools for targeted or comprehensive school improvement strategies based on the 2020-21 school year test results.

States, however, would have to continue to support schools previously identified as needing extra support and, to ensure transparency to the parents and public, schools will have to report the percentages of their students who do not take the tests -- separated by subgroups of students.

The federal government will require other kinds of reporting to be done, including the chronic absenteeism in their schools and data on student and educator access to laptops and internet service.

Rosenblum said that while it is urgent to know the impact of the pandemic on student learning, it is also the case that some schools and districts are unable to safely administer statewide tests using standard practices.

[DOCUMENT: Summative assessment flexibilities »]

"Certainly, we do not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic that they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test," he wrote.

"We emphasize the importance of flexibility in the administration of statewide assessments," he said.

Rosenblum suggested shortening the tests, offering "remote administration where feasible," and extending the time for testing into the summer or even into the beginning of the 2021-22 school year.

The guidance does not define whether "remote administration" of the tests can include a student's home as a test site.

Arkansas education leaders have repeatedly said that the testing cannot be done at a home but must be done at a school system-approved site as a way to ensure a consistent measure of student progress.

In addition to the ACT Aspire tests, Arkansas has required tests for kindergarten-through-second graders, for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and for students who are not English-language speakers.

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