We all pretty much agree the No Child Left Behind act has failed. The question remains did it fail because schools haven’t implemented testing properly or did it fail because testing, not learning, has become the focus. It seems everyone is weighing in this week. Here’s Obama on Facebook, below find an Atlantic, a New Yorker, and a Washington Post piece. And, if you’re really interested we also like this New Yorker story from March 2015, “When a Teacher’s Job Depends on a Child’s Test”
If our kids had more free time at school, what would you want them to do with it? A) Learn to play a musical instrument?B) Study a new language?C) Learn how to code HTML?D) Take more standardized tests?Take the quiz, then watch President Obama’s message about smarter ways to measure our kids’ progress in school.
Posted by The White House on Saturday, October 24, 2015
The Washington Post had this to say:
“Let’s ignore the fact that in releasing its new “Fact Sheet: Testing Action Plan,” the Obama administration included information from a two-year study that was under embargo (forcing the organization that had commissioned the report to move up its own release).
And let’s ignore the fact that the open letter President Obama wrote on Huffington Post to teachers and parents, calling for fewer and better standardized exams, comes seven years into an administration that was in large part responsible for the country’s testing obsession…”
On Saturday, President Obama posted a high-profile video message to Facebook in which he called on schools to reduce the amount of standardized testing taking place in classrooms. Critics of overtesting generally support the proposal, which reinforces what seems to have been the U.S. education system’s gradual, uneven, and often tacit withdrawal from aggressive, assessment-based accountability. In many ways, the plan amounts to the White House’s long-anticipated, albeit anti-climactic, response to what’s become a particularly fraught era in public education. The past few years have been characterized by mass opt-outs, a patchwork of state legislation to rein in rampant testing on their home turfs, and all kinds of assessment-related technological glitches and logistical snafus (one of which is currently playing out across Florida).
But Obama’s announcement of the so-called “Testing Action Plan” wasn’t the only piece of news to hit the anti-testing world this past weekend. It coincided, not uncoincidentally, with the release of a compelling report by Council of the Great City Schools—an influential Washington-based group that has generally supported testing—which offers the latest piece of evidence that government-driven school reform has taken things too far. The report identifies significant redundancy in the exams being administered in 66 urban U.S. school districts, finding that, between prekindergarten (yes, pre-k) and 12th grade, U.S. public-school students each take roughly eight mandatory standardized tests annually, many of them stipulated by No Child Left Behind.
The New Yorker Weighs In:
hen President Obama entered office, nearly seven years ago, it was with a promise of “hope over fear, unity over division,” as he told voters in the closing days of his first Presidential campaign. It could not then have been anticipated that one of the unintended ways in which liberals and conservatives have been united is in opposition to his Administration’s education policies. The Common Core standards, which were first issued in 2010 (already a handful of states have repealed or are reviewing them), and the proliferation of standardized testing that has accompanied their adoption, have proven widely unpopular. The Administration has given offense both on the right, where critics see the Common Core as an attempt to impose a national curriculum, and on the left, where skeptics charge that a technocratic faith in accumulating data undermines real learning and misrepresents students’ and teachers’ abilities.
Arne Duncan, who departs as Education Secretary this winter, announced this weekend that he’s been listening to these laments. “I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places, and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction,” he said, while unveiling the department’s new Testing Action Plan. According to the plan, the Administration will provide guidance and funding to local authorities to reduce testing, which, it states, henceforth should take up no more than two per cent of instructional time. It adds that any tests used must be of high quality, must be transparent to teachers and parents, and must be only one measure of many in assessing the performance of teachers and students alike.
The plan is a mea culpa of sorts, an acknowledgement by the Administration that its own policies cultivated the “drill and kill” test prep that has come to characterize many classrooms in the past several years. “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students,” the statement reads. “The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.” The announcement came just ahead of the release, on Monday, of a report on testing conducted by the Council of the Great City Schools, which reveals that public-school students take, on average, a hundred and twelve standardized exams in their school careers, with each student spending between twenty and twenty-five school hours per year taking tests. (Countless more hours are devoted to preparing for them; a good number are also spent recovering from them.)
Testing is common even from pre-K to second grade, the report notes. Michael Casserly, the council’s executive director, calls the current system of testing “unwieldy, incoherent, [and] at times illogical.” The most devastating aspect of the report is its verdict on the tests’ educational effectiveness: the two-year study discovered that there was no correlation between testing time and student performance when it came to reading and math. “There’s no evidence that adding testing time improves academic performance,” its authors write.
To underscore the importance of the Testing Action Plan, Obama issued a video message on Facebook. In it, he offered a “pop quiz” to parents: Would they rather their children spend more time in school A) learning to play a musical instrument, B) learning a foreign language, C) learning how to code HTML, or D) taking standardized tests. “If you’re like most of the parents and teachers I hear from, you wouldn’t choose D. I wouldn’t either,” the President said. (He didn’t; his daughters attend Sidwell Friends, a private school at which students are exempt from the testing regimen imposed upon their public-school peers.) But the President did not suggest that testing should be entirely done away with. “In moderation, smart strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school,” he said, before outlining the ways in which the education department would seek to temper its hitherto pro-testing policies.
Parents and educators will surely be relieved to feel that their objections have been heard, even if the new two-per-cent cap on testing will not, in fact, reduce testing by much, or, in many jurisdictions, reduce it at all. (By the calculation of one New York State teacher and blogger named Tim Farley, a two-per-cent cap in New York State translates to 23.4 hours of instructional time devoted to standardized testing in grades 3-8. That’s significantly more than the nine hours that gen-ed students currently spend bent over their tests.) The President’s remarks also did not address the question of how much weight test results should have in the assessment of teachers, whose performance in recent years has increasingly been judged on the test results they deliver rather than on other measures of the quality of their classroom instruction, to extremely demoralizing effect.
And a student of body language might also have cause to wonder while watching the President’s video message. What to make of the striking way in which, when speaking of the value of tests for students, Obama suddenly jerks his head backwards, and bats his eyelids for a prolonged moment, while asserting that tests “can help them … uh … learn”? If this is not the Commander in Chief’s most commanding moment, it may be because he knows that the testing regimen, at least as it currently is implemented, has limited efficacy for students when it comes to helping them, uh, learn. As the Council of the Great City Schools report notes, many districts have to wait between two and four months before final state test results are made available to schools, which means that they often come much too late in the school year to provide teachers with any practical information about how to help or guide the individual students under their care and instruction.
What Obama’s shying away from the camera—his appearance of being less than persuaded by his own words—underlined is the fact that, as they are currently administered at least, test results are most meaningful in aggregate. This has lead to their use and overuse in measuring not the abilities of individual children but, rather, the performance of teachers and educational institutions. Casserly’s remark, in releasing the survey results, that “it will take considerable effort to recreate something more intelligent” does not inspire optimism that the Administration’s learning curve will quickly be redrawn. (Arne Duncan’s successor as Secretary of Education is John King, the former New York State Commissioner of Education, who has thus far been a vocal defender of standardized testing.)
Parents want to know how their children are doing in school: in the Council of the Great City Schools’ survey, seventy-eight per cent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that it was important to measure what students were learning. But measuring is not the same thing as teaching—a distinction that is too easily elided when “assessment” is understood to be a synonym for administering a test. It is heartening to hear the President acknowledge that the mania for testing has grown out of control, and to witness him asserting the inspiring influence of his own best teachers. “When I look back at the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test,” he said, in a section of the video in which his customary candor did not seem compromised. Now parents and educators who have long advocated for richer and more illuminating ways to evaluate the work that goes on in their children’s classrooms will be hoping that the President doesn’t blink.