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Ravitch calls for congressional hearings on standardized testing, gets unexpected support

(Update: Adding Peter Cunningham view of hearings)

Education historian and activist Diane Ravitch just called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of standardized tests used for high-stakes purposes — and she got some unexpected support.

Ravitch and the nonprofit Network for Public Education that she leads held a conference in Austin this past weekend, just before the start of the SXSWedu conference in the same city opened on Monday.

During the NPE conference, activists discussed how to coordinate efforts to get teachers and parents to resist school reforms that they say are leading to the privatization of the public school system.

At the end of the conference, Ravitch called for congressional hearings on standardized tests and the way they are being used — and abused — in school districts across the country as a result of federal and state laws that require student scores to be used to evaluate not only the students but their teachers, principals and schools. Testing experts have long said that standardized test scores should not be used for high-stakes purposes, but policymakers have insisted on it anyway.

The subject of congressional hearings on testing abuse came up Tuesday at a SXSWedu panel on accountability. On the panel were Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s former communications director, Peter Cunningham, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten. (I was the moderator.) During the Q & A, one of the founders of NPE, veteran educator Anthony Cody, asked if the panelists would support the call for Congress to hold hearings on how standardized tests are being used in public schools.

Weingarten quickly said she would. Then, Cunningham said he would support it, as well.

Weingarten has been a vocal critical of excessive testing for some time. But it was a surprising moment for people who expected a different response from Cunningham, whose job it used to be to defend the Education Department’s policies which have resulted in a rise in testing.

In 2001, Congress passed the No Child Left Behind law, which ushered in the era of high-stakes testing, which has only been exacerbated by President Obama’s Race to the Top education initiative.  Congress passes laws with the intent that they will expire after a certain period of time, most often five years, and NCLB actually expired on Sept. 30, 2007. But because Congress didn’t rewrite it, it remains the law. Even though most people who pay attention to education issues have admitted that NCLB is desperately flawed, it still is driving what goes on in schools, at least in those minority of states where the Obama administration hasn’t approved a waiver from the worst parts of NCLB.   Unfortunately, those waivers require states to agree to evaluate teachers in part on test scores.

Nobody in Washington expects Congress to get its act together to actually rewrite NCLB anytime soon. But legislators are really good at holding hearings on topics that are important to them. We’ll see if this is important enough to anybody to call hearings on standardized testing.

Update: Cunningham wrote in an e-mail:

While many people link “overtesting” to federal policy, in fact NCLB requires exactly 17 tests during a child’s entire K-12 educational career: reading and math in grades three through eight and once in high school and three science tests in grades four and seven and once in high school.  A recent report by Teach Plus (link) suggests that a big factor in the “over-testing” phenomenon are locally imposed tests.  Local educators may have legitimate reasons for these additional tests — perhaps they provide quicker feedback or they are more aligned to curriculum.  Either way, it falls to superintendents and principals to help parents understand this and either justify these local tests or eliminate them, as many districts have.  An honest and robust conversation about all dimensions of testing, including test prep, is timely, whether its in the halls of Congress or in the columns of the Washington Post.