Bootsie Battle-Holt, a middle school math teacher from Los Angeles, found herself sitting on a couch in the Oval Office on Monday morning, telling President Obama about the barrage of tests that she is required to administer to her students.
“He said that he knows for sure at this point that many of our students are being overtested, and he’s dedicated to a plan to mitigate that,” said Battle-Holt, one of two teachers invited to meet with Obama, along with a cadre of federal, state and city education officials.
The private meeting came two days after Obama acknowledged that his policies have helped lead to overtesting in the nation’s public schools and pledged to reduce it.
“I walked away really feeling this is an issue that the president clearly cares about and intends to take action on,” said Farida Mama, a fifth-grade math teacher at UP Academy Dorchester, a public charter school in Boston’s public school system.
The White House invited the teachers to Washington because they are policy fellows with Teach Plus, a nonprofit organization that aims to amplify the voices of teachers in education policy. They were joined by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his deputy, John King, who is slated to succeed Duncan in December.
A typical student takes 112 mandated standardized tests between pre-kindergarten classes and 12th grade, according to a study released Saturday by the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the nation’s 66 largest school systems. That doesn’t count quizzes created by individual teachers or diagnostic tests given to some students but not all.
The study blamed federal, state and local school districts for creating a jumble of tests, many of them redundant and of dubious value to teachers and students.
It triggered an immediate reaction from Obama, who said that he wants U.S. students to take fewer, better tests. He pledged as much in an open letter to teachers and parents the White House released Monday.
At the White House meeting, Obama mused that one solution could be to give a short assessment at the beginning of the school year to establish a baseline and a brief test at the end to measure student growth, Battle-Holt said.
Several people at the meeting said the president made it clear that some minimum amount of standardized testing is needed to hold schools accountable for educating all children, especially those from groups that have been historically underserved.
But Obama expressed an interest in ways to measure student learning that are more creative than multiple-choice tests, Mama said, adding that they discussed the projects and portfolios of student work that her arts-based school uses to evaluate student achievement.
The heaviest testing load falls on the nation’s eighth-graders, who spend an average of 25.3 hours during the school year taking standardized tests, uniform exams required of all students in a particular grade or course of study. Testing affects even the youngest students, with the average pre-K class giving 4.1 standardized tests, the report found.
Most countries that outperform the United States on international exams test students three times during their school careers.
In response to the study, Duncan released a “testing action plan” that recommends a cap on the amount of time that students spend testing at 2 percent of overall instructional time. A similar proposal is part of an education bill pending in the Senate.
But Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, said an arbitrary cap could have the perverse effect of making the testing system more incoherent. “There is a very strong possibility that people will eliminate the tests that are actually useful,” he said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, cautioned the administration against recommending a cap on testing. “One more Washington decree — even if it is only a recommendation for now — is not the way to solve the problem of too many federal mandates,” Alexander said.
Some school systems have begun jettisoning tests. On Sunday, Boston Public Schools announced it would reduce some mandatory testing at lower-performing schools for grades 3 and up and would give higher-performing schools discretion over the number of tests to administer. Miami-Dade County Public Schools Superintendent Alberto Carvalho earlier this year cut the number of district-created end-of-course exams from 300 to 10 and eliminated them for elementary schools.
But Carvalho said Monday that a focus on the number of tests, or time spent taking them, is misguided.
“The next phase of the conversation cannot be about a cap,” he said. “It’s really a quantitative analysis. . . . Can they actually improve teaching and learning? Are they useful to teachers, and do they transparently inform communities and parents about performance?”