Legal Corner: COVID-19 and Impacts to State Assessment and Accountability Systems

By Megan Welsh posted 04-10-2020 14:18


MCroft.pngMichelle Croft, ACT

The coronavirus (COVID-19) has disrupted many aspects of daily life, including schools. According to Education Week, as of March 19, 2020, 44 states had closed their schools. The timeframe for reopening varies by state and may require ongoing adjustments given the evolving/changing circumstances of the pandemic; however, at least one state has already announced that school buildings will be closed for the remainder of the year.

The closures are already having a broad impact on school decision-making, ranging from how to provide for students’ basic needs to whether and how to provide online instruction, particularly given that not all students have access to technology. The closures are also impacting assessment and accountability, as they are occurring at a time when many states were administering or were about to administer their spring summative assessments.

On March 12, 2020, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) released COVID-19 information, including a Fact Sheet related to assessment and accountability. The Fact Sheet specified that although waivers from annual testing are generally not granted, USED would consider doing so in cases where a school was closed during the entire testing window. The Fact Sheet noted that the waiver was school-based, not state based, as it was possible for a state to have tested at least some schools within the state while other schools were closed. The Fact Sheet also encouraged states to consider adjusting or extending their testing windows “to accommodate as many students as possible.” However, as many states anticipated closures lasting through between mid-April to the end of the school year, a number of states announced that they would seek a waiver or cancel testing instead of adjusting or extending the testing window, making it increasingly unlikely that states would continue to test even if schools are re-opened before the end of the school year. On March 20, 2020, USED announced that states could cancel testing for the year.

In addition to waivers related to assessment, USED is also providing accountability-related waivers. Originally, the Fact Sheet noted that there would not be a standard accountability waiver because the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) allows states flexibility in designing the their accountability systems. Waivers would be considered case by case depending on the specifics of the state’s system. USED anticipated that states would need waivers related to the requirement that 95 percent of the student population participate in the assessment. Similarly, because a large number of states use chronic absenteeism as an indicator within their accountability systems, USED was considering a waiver permitting states to exclude it for one year. Despite the original call for individual waivers, the subsequent guidance allows for states to submit for a standard waiver for all of the accountability and school identification requirements as well as score reporting requirements.

Even with the availability of waivers, states unable to conduct the required testing this school year will face problems in subsequent years resulting from the lack of assessment data. Because decisions are tied closely to testing performance, the challenge will be potentially redesigning the accountability system to accommodate the lack of these results; this will be further complicated in states where some schools and districts have completed testing, while others have not. This will be particularly an issue for states that have assessment-related student promotion or retention laws, or teacher evaluation systems that incorporate student growth data. In these cases, states will need to evaluate whether to suspend such policies for all schools or only for those that did not test; whereas states without any testing data will need to decide more generally how to approach these policy decisions. In the upcoming months, states will be relying on guidance from USED to help inform these types of decisions.