Duncan offers teachers leeway on job performance tied to standardized tests

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on Thursday announced a plan to allow states to delay using student standardized test results on teacher performance evaluations, a move widely seen as an effort to calm tension between Duncan and the nation’s educators.

Duncan said the delay will allow states “to take that pressure off teachers” who had expressed concern over standardized exams which this year will include new material based on Common Core standards.

“If we can provide some flexibility, we will do that,” he said.

Duncan spoke about the plan at the District’s Jefferson Academy middle school in Southwest and participated in a panel discussion with teachers from the city and around the country on the new testing proposals.

“We’re all concerned about this issue of over-testing,” Duncan said. “We don’t want them taking all their time taking tests or in test preparation.”

But he told teachers that the new standards would benefit students and educators.

Under the new guidelines, states can apply for permission to delay including testing data on teacher ratings, a key provision of the No Child Left Behind act. The announcement marked the second time in a little more than a year that the Education Department has revised how student performance data may affect teachers. In June 2013, Duncan announced that states could also wait one year any personnel decisions for teachers whose evaluations were based on student performance on standardized tests.

The latest action by the secretary marks yet another move apparently aimed at repairing the relationship between Duncan and educators.

At a National Education Association convention this year, delegates called on Duncan to resign because of his “failed education agenda.”

On Thursday, Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers — the country’s second largest teachers’ organization — called the announcement a step in the right direction.

“The department’s admission today that testing has gone too far is a good step, if there is a real course correction that is linked to concrete action and no just words,” said Weingarten, who represents 1.6 million teachers. “The over-testing this administration has too often championed has sapped our students and our classrooms of the joy of learning. We need to restore that joy now.”

NEA President-elect Lily Eskelsen García described Duncan’s announcement as “common sense.”

“This moratorium is a temporary measure and, while good, it is just a first step,” said Garcia, who represents 3 million members. “We must end these absurd practices and replace them with a system that serves each and every single student’s needs and that prepares all students for college or careers.”

At Jefferson Academy, Duncan emphasized improving morale among the country’s public school educators by promoting the positive role teachers play on their students.

“Don’t let anyone ever diminish what you are doing every single day,” Duncan said. “Great teachers, great principals, great schools make a huge, huge difference in children’s lives.”

Kaya Henderson, chancellor of the District’s public school system, said Thursday that her administration would not make any personnel decisions next year based on student performance on a new Common Core-aligned tests known as PARCC that will replace the old CAS exams.

“We won’t attach stakes to the PARCC exam,” Henderson said. “We know that we need to allow students and educators to manage the complex transition as we move from the CAS.”

Duncan acknowledged that the administration still thinks that standardized tests provide a valuable resource to schools and principals. But Duncan noted in a blog posted on Thursday that “testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools,” and that in “too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus.”

Duncan reiterated that standardized tests are important to students and teachers but not so much that they overshadow learning in the classroom.

“No teacher, no school district should ever be defined as a single test score,” Duncan said.

“We know there is so much that a test score can’t measure. We know it does not define a teacher, a student or a school.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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