Schools must give standardized tests this year: Biden administration

Erin Richards

Elinor Aspegren


States will need to administer annual standardized achievement exams to students in 2021, but they can modify or delay the tests, the U.S. Department of Education said Monday.

In a letter to state education leaders, acting Assistant Education Secretary Ian Rosenblum wrote that the Biden administration will not consider “blanket waivers of assessments” this year.

Under federal law, states must administer annual exams in key subjects including reading and math to students in third through eighth grade and once in high school. The results of those exams can be used to judge schools, and sometimes also teachers, on their performance, and they can also trigger improvement efforts.

The requirement to administer state exams was waived by former education secretary Betsy DeVos in spring 2020, when most U.S. schools shut down as a result of COVID-19.  

The new guidance from the Biden administration comes before its secretary of education nominee, Miguel Cardona, has been confirmed. During his confirmation hearing in early February, Cardona didn’t say whether the federally required exams should be waived again this year. He said it was important to assess student progress, but that schools probably shouldn’t bring students back in-person just to administer an exam. 

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States can decide whether to shorten the annual exams, administer them remotely, or delay giving them until summer or fall, the new guidance says. Also, schools won’t be held accountable for the results of how students perform. 

“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,” wrote Rosenblum.

The issue of standardized testing has divided the education community, and this policy decision was no exception.

The announcement embodied a “frustrating turn” for the administration, after a series of successes in supporting children through the pandemic, said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

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“As the educators in the classroom, we have always known that standardized tests are not the best way to measure a child’s development, nor do they particularly help kids or inform best practices for teaching and learning,” she wrote in the statement. “That is especially true in these unprecedented times, when students and teachers alike are remaking the school experience in the most unlikely of circumstances.”

But Council of Chief State School Officers CEO Carissa Moffat Miller said she supported the federal requirement, writing in a statement Monday that the announcement “acknowledges the real, varied challenges that educators, students, and families are facing across the country.

“State education leaders and CCSSO deeply value assessment as a tool to know where students are academically, identify inequities, and inform decision-making, including ensuring supports get to the students who need them,” she added.

The National Parents-Teacher Association released a survey Monday which found that 52% of parents surveyed favored end-of-year testing this spring “to measure the impact of the pandemic on student learning.”

Usually, state achievement tests are administered to students in the spring. They allow “a clearer picture of where children are academically and help equip parents to effectively advocate on behalf of their child’s learning,” said PTA leader Leslie Boggs.

“As underscored by the results of the survey, parents and educators alike should have meaningful data on student learning and progress” in order to tailor learning, she added.

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