Michigan education officials push local assessments in test waiver bid

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

After federal education officials told states they will not issue blanket waivers for state assessments, Michigan education officials say local benchmark assessments given during the year should be considered as an alternative.

On Monday, the U.S. Department of Education sent a letter to state chief school officers saying states should consider administering a shortened version of statewide assessments, offering remote administration where possible, offering multiple test windows or extending the testing window into the summer or even the start of the 2021-22 school year.

State education officials are emphasizing the limited number of students who have had significant in-person instruction in Michigan's request for a waiver from giving state assessments this school year.

"It is urgent to understand the impact of COVID-19 on learning," the letter said. "We know, however, that some schools and school districts may face circumstances in which they are not able to safely administer statewide summative assessments this spring using their standard practices."

"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," the letter said.

The waivers being sought by Michigan education officials are to cancel state exams such as the Michigan Student Test of Academic Progress and the SAT.

Michigan education officials have twice requested a waiver from spring state assessments, saying a majority of students have received inconsistent or no in-person instruction during the 2020-21 school year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The first waiver request was rejected by officials under then-U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. The second waiver request was filed in late 2020.

State assessments for the 2019-20 school were canceled by state officials after federal education officials approved a waiver request when the pandemic shut Michigan children out of schools last March.

On Monday, state superintendent of instruction Michael Rice issued a statement saying his department will be reaching out to and working with the U.S. Department of Education to "share the value of the benchmark assessments administered statewide during this year.”

In the absence of state assessments last spring, state lawmakers are requiring local districts this school year to give local benchmark assessments in reading and math to K-8 students — something a majority of districts, around 90%, were already doing before the pandemic.

Under the state's Return to Learn legislation for the 2020-21 school year, assessments must be given within the first nine weeks of school and again before the end of the school year to measure proficiency.

Districts are required to report to the Michigan Department of Education and its data collection agency how the assessments measured any losses in learning and local plans for addressing the loss.

But with a majority of students having inconsistent or no in-person learning this school year, giving local assessments has been a challenge.

In many districts where students are in remote learning, local assessments have to be given at home where test conditions are not controlled or otherwise less than ideal, school officials say. In some cases, districts are having students come into closed school buildings to take tests. Some students are not taking local assessment because they or their families refuse to participate or are unreachable.

Some education advocates said they were pleased federal education officials did not issue blanket waivers for state assessments and other requirements.

 Amber Arellano, executive director of The Education Trust-Midwest, said it is important that the U.S. Department of Education not grant waivers to states that would allow them to substitute local assessments in place of statewide assessments or to only assess a subset of students.

"By design, these local assessments do not hold all students to the same standards and expectations," she said. "They do not offer appropriate accommodations for students with disabilities or English learners, as required under federal law for statewide assessments; they are not peer reviewed to ensure quality and prevent bias; and the results of these assessments will not be comparable from district to district."

Arellano said she urges MDE to commit to administering statewide summative assessments, as well as collecting data on multiple measures, including school climate, student access to resources and opportunities, and student learning outcomes.

"These are essential tools to address systemic inequities in our education system, as well as gauge the quality of instruction and support offered under COVID-19 restrictions," she said.