States might be able to scrap their required annual tests for closed schools, the federal education department said Thursday, as concerns about the coronavirus swept the country

Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

Those changes could have ripple effects, with rules that require states to identify their lowest performing schools also being put on pause.

“Due to the unique circumstances that may arise as a result of COVID-19, such as a school closing during the entire testing window, it may not be feasible for a State to administer some or all of its assessments, in which case the Department would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the assessment requirements for those schools impacted by the extraordinary circumstances,” the department document says.

The Department’s language is hypothetical, and it remains unclear how widespread and lengthy school closings will be nationwide. Ohio, Maryland, and portions of Washington state have closed schools for extended periods, while places like New York City are saying schools will stay open except in specific circumstances. 

But the department’s guidance highlights how the new coronavirus threatens to affect many routine aspects of schooling. While some students and testing critics may be pleased by the respite from state exams, civil rights groups have long argued that such tests are crucial for revealing educational disparities.

The department also suggested it would be flexible with other rules, including measures that hold schools accountable for student attendance and one that penalizes schools where fewer than 95% of students sit for state tests. Both might be affected by increased student absence rates even when schools stay open.

Still, the guidance is clear that the wholesale cancellation of tests is not the only option for closed schools. 

“States with schools that must close due to the COVID-19 may also want to consider whether it is possible to adjust or extend the testing window to accommodate as many students as possible,” it says.

The issue has already come up in some areas. Palo Alto Unified School District in California, for instance, announced plans to cancel tests amidst school closures, before being told by the state education department that it instead must delay the exams, EdSource reported.

The federal guidance doesn’t speak to other issues that might arise due to cancelled tests, including districts that use exams to determine student grade promotion or to evaluate teachers. Those issued would have to hashed out locally or at the state level.