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Request for Federal ESSA Waiver for Standardized Testing

By Jason Leahy posted 12-17-2020 11:40


The following was co-signed by the Illinois Principals Association, Illinois Association of School Administrators, Illinois Federation of Teachers, Chicago Teachers Union, and Illinois Educators Association. A PDF of the letter can be downloaded here. A call to action from ISBE regarding accountability is at the bottom of this post. Please note that this call to action is separate from the letter sent to ISBE by IPA, IASA, IFT, CTU and IEA.

December 10, 2020

Dr. Carmen Ayala
State Superintendent of Education
Illinois State Board of Education
100 N. 1st Street
Springfield, IL 62777

Dear Dr. Ayala:

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to impact every corner of the state. Despite the committed efforts of educators to provide the most robust, appropriate and safe educational experience for our students, the pandemic’s disruptive force has meant that students have had inconsistent and uneven experiences within schools, across districts, and among regions. Moreover, the gross inequity the pandemic has reinforced, both in health and economic outcomes, means our least resourced students feel the brunt of the pandemic’s impact. Given the paucity of federal leadership and relief, coupled with rising infection rates leading to many districts’ use of adaptive pauses to in-person schooling, providing a stable and consistent learning environment is impossible this school year. As such, we write today to request that you strongly advocate for a federal ESSA (Every School Succeeds Act) waiver for standardized testing for the 2020-2021 school year.

COVID rates continue to surge around the state, even before factoring in holiday travel and gatherings. It is likely that hospitals will continue to be at or near capacity, and the number of deaths will continue to be high. Increasingly large numbers of students and their families will be impacted. In this environment, rife with trauma and uncertainty, students’ academic performance is a reflection of their social, emotional, and economic context, and is likely much different than it would be in a more stable and predictable schooling environment.

We recognize that students have learned differently this school year: they may have covered less of the traditional curriculum while learning far more about systemic inequities that go beyond the scope of traditional tests. To that end, various standardized academic tests, developed to assess particular concepts and skills during regular, sustained, in-person learning, will provide inaccurate data—these tests were simply not designed to measure student learning in a pandemic.

Further, school districts are struggling with the implications of required in-person testing. ISBE’s requirement for inperson testing in 2021 will result in complicated—and potentially unsafe—logistical and scheduling decisions that will further reduce instructional time for students. The U.S. Department of Education recognizes that standardized testing this year will yield unreliable and invalid data and has postponed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card) for this year.

Logically, then, other standardized assessments should also be postponed until conditions for learning return to a more stable state. Illinois should urge the U.S. Department of Education to waive all exams under ESSA, including but not limited to the Illinois Assessment of Readiness (IAR), the ACCESS exam, and other accountability tests. Our primary goal is to protect the health and safety of all of our students and school communities—especially our most marginalized and vulnerable—and to prioritize learning time rather than time spent on testing. Postponing standardized testing via a U.S. DOE ESSA waiver is an important, necessary, and humanizing response to this pandemic that has ravaged our communities. We must center the health and well-being of our students, educators and school communities, and ensure that school districts are able to devote their time and resources to maximizing teaching and learning in the safest ways possible.


December 17, 2020

ISBE delays start of 2021 spring assessment window to March 15

ACCESS test for English Learners pushed from possible start date of Jan. 4 to no sooner than March 15

SPRINGFIELD – The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) announced today that it has delayed the opening of the 2021 spring assessment window to at least March 15, in response to requests from school districts and stakeholders. The delayed start provides the greatest possible flexibility for schools.

The original administration window for the ACCESS test, which measures the proficiency of English Learners in reading, writing, speaking and listening, would have allowed schools to begin testing as early as Jan. 4. ISBE’s action today ensures no student will take a federally required assessment, including ACCESS, until March 15 at the earliest.

“Thank you to everyone who provided feedback on the timing of the federally required assessments,” said State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala. “I made the commitment at our Board meeting yesterday to delay the start of assessments as much as possible, and I am happy to keep that promise today. We will continue to respond to the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic in a way that always puts our students first, is collaborative and grounded in equity, and that recognizes the diverse needs of our 852 school districts.”

The federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to administer assessments in specific subjects and grade levels. Failing to administer spring assessments without an approved waiver from the federal government would risk billions of dollars in federal funding for the state’s highest-need students. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has not issued any waiver opportunities for spring 2021 assessments as of today.

ISBE’s action today gives schools the maximum possible time and flexibility to prepare for the assessment administration or to receive new direction from the ED. ISBE released guidance in October to assist schools in preparing to administer the federally required spring assessments safely in-person. School districts typically have a 6-10 week administration window or multiple possible dates per assessment to choose from as they prepare to administer assessments locally.

The federally required assessments in Illinois are the Illinois Assessment of Readiness for students in grades 3-8; the SAT for students in grade 11; the Illinois Science Assessment for students in grades 5, 8, and 11; the ACCESS for English Learners; and the Dynamic Learning Maps Alternate Assessment for the 1 percent of students with the most significant cognitive disabilities.


Call to Action

The Illinois State Board of Education is working on a 2021 Accountability Addendum to submit to the U.S. Department of Education. While assessment and accountability requirements are currently not waived for 2021, the U.S. Department of Education (ED) did release a process for states to access flexibilities for accountability in 2021. States are being allowed to request temporary adjustments to calculation and scoring rules, timelines for identification, and achievement of measures of interim progress and long-term goals for designations issues in 2021 through an expedited addendum process. ISBE will hold a webinar from 1-3 p.m. on December 21 about the addendum process. The session will be recorded, and an FAQ published on ISBE’s ESSA webpage and Summative Designations webpage. Registration for the 2021 Accountability Addendum can be found here.

ISBE is asking that public comments should be submitted to by Jan. 6.

Questions should be emailed to Accountability Director Rae Clementz at