California schools will be expected to administer Smarter Balanced and other statewide tests this spring, but districts can select alternatives in cases where these tests are not “viable” to administer, federal education officials said Tuesday.

Delivered in a letter to State Board of Education President Linda Darling-Hammond and State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Thurmond, the decision comes amid an increasingly confusing national testing landscape this spring, as other states have received a mix of approval and denials for various testing proposals.

In California, school districts may be scratching their heads over what could deem their situation appropriate for seeking alternatives.

California’s State Board of Education has not outlined in detail what conditions a district must be under in order to select an alternative assessment. However, situations could qualify where students aren’t in school due to COVID-19 concerns or don’t have the technology required to take tests remotely, the California Department of Education stated Tuesday in a press release.

The state plans to release criteria for when school districts can select an alternative assessment, according to Daniel Thigpen, deputy superintendent of communications at the California Department of Education, but did not provide a date on when that would be available.

Test requirements

The Smarter Balanced tests in math and English language arts are among several tests school districts are typically required to administer to different student groups as prescribed by state and federal law.

In March 2020, state and federal education officials allowed states to suspend annual standardized testing due to the pandemic. But this year, education officials appointed by President Joe Biden said that school districts must resume testing, despite having a wide variation among school districts returning to in-person instruction and an ongoing pandemic.

The State Board of Education decided to seek out a number of flexible options from the U.S. Department of Education in February, including removing penalties associated with having less than 95% participation rate and extending the test administration window to July 30. Those provisions were also approved this week by the U.S. Department of Education.

At its November meeting, the state board voted to approve shortened versions of the Smarter Balanced assessments as well.

In their letter to state education leaders, federal education officials said in a letter that California does not need to submit another waiver for its standardized testing plan, affirming private conversations that were previously reported by EdSource.

“A waiver is not required at this time because California is administering all of its required assessments and all school districts will be required to administer the statewide summative assessments except in any instances where the State concludes it is not viable to administer the assessment because of the pandemic,” Ian Rosenblum, deputy assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Education, said in the letter.

At its March meeting, the State Board of Education decided to apply for a waiver that would allow for districts to use alternative assessments if Smarter Balanced testing was not feasible due to the pandemic. The agreement outlined on Tuesday would require districts to continue with Smarter Balanced and use alternatives only if the state’s typical assessment is deemed unviable.

Other criteria

According to the letter, “These interim, diagnostic, or formative assessments do not replace statewide summative assessments, but they can serve to provide valuable information to meet our goal of maximizing the number of students for whom we have quality data this year.”

In situations where districts aren’t able to safely administer Smarter Balanced tests, alternative assessments would have to meet a specific set of criteria. These assessments would have to be aligned with Common Core state standards; be available to assess students in third-eight grades and 11th grade; be uniformly administered across a grade span, school or district; and provide results for parents, educators and the public broken down by demographics.

All this begs the question: What is a “viable” testing environment during a pandemic?

According to the U.S. Department of Education letter: “Viability refers to the ability to administer the statewide summative assessment given a district’s specific circumstances in the context of the pandemic. It does not provide an opportunity for States or school districts to choose to administer local assessments in place of the statewide summative assessment.”

Students still in remote learning may not be able to access the state’s summative tests because they lack the required browsers for testing security on their computers or sufficient bandwidth to take the tests. “In such a case, student assessment data could be provided through a high-quality interim or diagnostic test that meets Board-approved criteria,” according to the California Department of Education press release, which signaled that individual exceptions to the state’s summative tests would be few.

Without clear guidance from the state yet on what types of scenarios might allow for an alternative assessment, district leaders and testing experts are left wondering.

“That’s going to be a boatload of work in a very short period of time for CDE (California Department of Education) staff to develop recommendations for the SBE (State Board of Education) to approve, most certainly if such viability has to be evaluated on an individual district basis,” said Doug McRae, a retired educational measurement specialist who has served as an adviser on the initial design and development of California’s STAR assessment system.

But according to Thigpen, viability will be a local decision that state officials will not have to formally approve.

“Districts are all in different phases of transitioning to their next models of learning. We see our role in providing criteria, so there’s a consistent application, but we won’t implement a new approval requirement,” Thigpen said.

The communications officer also clarified that districts should not use different tests for different students. So, if a school was in a hybrid model where some students are learning at home and others are in person, all students should still take the same assessment.

What the new state law states

Last summer, California passed a bill, SB 98, that outlined what distance learning must entail for the 2020-21 school year. The law requires California school districts to provide parents with information about students’ learning progress and measure potential learning loss. That led some districts to purchase new assessment programs such as iReady or NWEA, which both meet the requirements California has established for alternative assessments.

The state board and California Department of Education “created a clever buffer for districts,” said Scott Marion, executive director for the Center for Assessment, referring to the 2020 state law that required measuring student progress, which some districts now may be able to use instead of Smarter Balanced this year. The Center for Assessment is an education company that works with states and school districts to research, analyze and implement assessment plans.

“They sort of laid the groundwork for getting data and that’s quite powerful,” Marion said. “So by offering the state test to those who can take it, they have satisfied the federal requirement.”

Issues with internet connectivity at home, trauma, and other unique circumstances students are in during the ongoing transition back to in-person instruction have caused some parents and teachers to call for canceling standardized testing this year altogether. However, the U.S. Department of Education has said no to such requests when other states, including New York, applied.

But on Tuesday, federal education officials told Washington, D.C., that it would not be required to offer standardized tests to all students, citing how nearly 88% of students remain in fully distance learning. Although assessments such as Smarter Balanced have remote administration capabilities and proctoring tools, many testing experts have warned that this would create data based on vastly unequal testing environments.

Smarter Balanced is an online test, but in previous years has not been given outside of a classroom setting, in part because of test security issues as well as technological challenges. Federal education officials are not requiring that districts give the test to students who are still in distance learning.

“The Department does not believe that if there are places where students are unable to attend school safely in person because of the pandemic they should be brought into school buildings for the sole purpose of taking a test,” Rosenbaum said in his letter to California education officials. “In cases where students are unable to take the statewide summative assessment, we hope that States and districts use other assessments to measure student learning and progress and to provide information to parents and educators.”

‘It’s hard to open schools’

“The reality is, it’s hard to open schools. And we know that remote testing doesn’t work as well as promised,” said Marion, calling the patchwork of state testing plans inconsistent.

In California, many districts have started to bring groups of students back and so far have focused on students in elementary grades and student groups with high needs. Only a handful of school districts are offering fully in-person instruction to all students, and in those cases, most are continuing to provide distance learning for some students.

What’s keeping Marion up at night now, he said, is what will happen with the eventual data and scores that are collected.

“We want the chances of correct interpretations to exceed misinterpretation,” he said. “If this was a basketball bracket, I’d be betting on misinterpretation.”

* Story originally published by EdSource.