This story has been updated to reflect the portion of students who will remain in distance learning in Elk Grove Unified.
California school officials scratching their heads over how to roll out standardized tests this spring could soon have another option.
On Tuesday, the State Board of Education voted unanimously to seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Education that would allow California school districts to use locally selected tests rather than the Smarter Balanced statewide assessments, which are required by state and federal education law.
“It has become clear that the persistent gaps that existed in our education system pre-pandemic have become chasms,” said Rachael Maves, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Instruction and Measurement Branch of the California Department of Education. “In this context, it seems not only appropriate but necessary” to measure student learning.
One major wrinkle with allowing districts to select alternative assessments is that it would hurt the ability for statewide comparisons. Acknowledging the issue, Maves said, “we believe it is the best option during truly imperfect times.”
States are required to administer annual standardized tests in reading and math for students in grades 3-8 and once in high school under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, and California administers the Smarter Balanced tests every spring to comply with that law. The U.S. Department of Education waived federal testing requirements after schools closed for in-person instruction in March 2020 due to the pandemic and later announced they would continue this year.
But this year, as teachers have moved to the front of the vaccination line and cases of Covid-19 have significantly dipped, the State Board of Education has been struggling to strike a balance for stressed-out teachers and students who need a break and the parents, advocacy groups and other education officials who want to see data on how the past year has impacted learning.
The vote for local assessments comes amid a massive statewide effort to bring more students back to school for in-person instruction. Nearly 9,000 schools in California have or plan to soon bring back students to campus beginning with grades TK-2 and students with high needs, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced Tuesday.
But even in districts where all schools have reopened or plan to reopen soon, some families are sticking with distance learning, creating a patchwork of plans and learning models that districts must accommodate as they prepare for standardized testing.
Teachers, principals and other education officials across the state have pushed for a blanket waiver from standardized testing this year, including the majority of the State Board of Education members and the California Teachers Association. However, the U.S. Department of Education announced on Feb. 22 that the tests will be required this year and has rejected requests for statewide blanket waivers from states such as New York.
In lieu of a blanket waiver, the California State Board of Education has implemented a shortened version of the math and English language arts tests, and remote proctoring tools are now built into the system. In February, the state board also voted to pursue a waiver eliminating the California Science Test for 2021, extended the time frame for all tests to July 30, and decoupled the test participation requirements from any consequences. In a typical year, federal funding can be withheld from states that dip below the 95% participation benchmark.
News about the potential for local assessments came as a relief to some school officials, especially those where the majority of students are still in distance learning and Covid-19 cases are still high.
“Local assessments in our district provide us with the opportunity to assess students throughout the year. This is important for our military and migrant families who move in and out throughout the year,” said Mercedes Lovie, associate superintendent of educational services in Oceanside Unified in San Diego County.
In Elk Grove Unified, students are beginning to fill their classroom seats once again. But about 70% of students have opted to remain in distance learning as of March, so the district is planning for both remote and in-person testing scenarios.
Because the Smarter Balanced tests are already approved, the school district doesn’t plan to switch to local assessments for its end-of-year tests.
“Right now we don’t have a local assessment in place that is of the same caliber and same measure as Smarter Balanced,” said Christine Hikido, director of research and evaluation at Elk Grove Unified. “At this point, we would be crunched for time to build one, and we don’t know if it would be approved, so doesn’t seem prudent to move in that direction.”
Across California, nearly 14,000 English language arts and 8,000 mathematics Smarter Balanced assessments are underway. In addition, 11,000 California Science Tests are underway and 9,200 are completed, according to Mao Vang, director for the Assessment Development and Administration Division at the California Department of Education.
This time last year, there were about 43,000 English language arts tests in-process and about 19,000 in math, and over 26,000 California Science Tests had been completed.
About 77% of school districts said they use one of five local assessments during the 2020-21 school year already, according to a survey conducted in March by the California Department of Education, which reached 969 districts. Those include Star Assessments by Renaissance, i-Ready by Curriculum Associates, Measures of Academic Progress by NWEA, FastBridge by Illuminate and Reading Inventory by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The majority of districts indicated that they would use the Smarter Balanced assessments or a local option if approved.
Lacking specific guidance on which assessments to use and ever-changing reopening details has led many districts to hold off on pinning down any decision on testing, either remotely or in person.
“There’s stress at school sites every time we do standardized tests because it takes away instructional time. But since we are still fully in distance learning, instructional time is really valuable. So that’s a challenge,” said Rubén Aurelio, chief academic officer in West Contra Costa Unified. The district does not yet have a formal plan for math and English language arts assessments this spring, he said, and is currently focused on administering English language proficiency assessments for students whose primary language is one other than English.
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