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Why Obama’s new plan to cap standardized testing won’t work

(AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

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.

[Study says standardized testing is overwhelming nation’s public schools]

A look at the Testing Action Plan itself reveals that the authors have fumbled the policy as much as the plan’s release, even as it concedes that the administration’s policies fueled a high-stakes testing obsession in U.S. public schools. It says:

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 Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.

Admitting a problem late is better than never, but the solutions offered by the administration — apparently to calm an anti-testing rebellion around the country — don’t much move the needle. They won’t cut into testing time and test prep all that much, if at all, and they won’t eliminate what is arguably a bigger problem: the high stakes associated with the exams.

[Five reasons standardized testing isn’t likely to let up]

Let’s quickly review how the administration got here.

The focus on high-stakes standardized tests started in force with the 2002 No Child Left Behind law, which mandated testing in a number of grades to hold schools “accountable” for educating students. The law had a goal that virtually all students would be proficient in math and reading by 2014, and though this was literally impossible to achieve (something the authors knew), schools became obsessed with the scores on English and math tests, leading to a shrinking of the curriculum and the rise of excessive test prep.

Enter President Obama in 2009. While many supporters thought he would minimize the importance of “bubble” tests, he actually raised them. Obama’s $4.3 billion Race to the Top funding competition called for states to compete for federal funding by promising to undertake specific reforms — including evaluating teachers by test scores and adopting “common standards.” Some districts began experimenting with giving standardized tests in every subject (leading one North Carolina student to ask why he had to take a standardized test in Yearbook class). Teachers in many states were evaluated by test scores of students they didn’t have, or in subjects they didn’t teach. (In New York state, an art teacher, for example, was evaluated on students’ math scores.) Obama’s Education Department also granted waivers to states from the most onerous requirements of NCLB, but only if those states agreed to reforms approved by Secretary Arne Duncan’s team.

[How is this fair? Art teacher evaluated on students’ math test scores]

The administration gave $360 million for the creation of new standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards, exams that Duncan said would be “game-changing” because they would be assessment tools much more sophisticated than those previously used. Because of time and financial constraints, they didn’t turn out to be quite so game-changing, and opposition to the exams grew among parents and students, many of whom began to opt out of the exams. In New York state in the spring, 20 percent of students refused to take them. Some teachers around the country began to refuse to administer them, and principals and superintendents began to call out policymakers for creating an untenable testing system.

Duncan first tried to ignore the testing revolt, and at one point attempted to belittle it (in 2013, he told a group of state schools superintendents that he found it “fascinating” that some of the opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — realized their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.”) But as the protests continued, he began in the last year or so to start talking about excessive testing. And that’s how we come to the administration’s Testing Action Plan. What is it?

It is a document that says kids take too many standardized tests, and it recommends, among other things, that a new focus be placed on quality tests and a cap on standardized testing during class time — 2 percent. It says:

Time-limited: While it is up to states and districts how to balance instructional time and the need for high-quality assessments, we recommend that states place a cap on the percentage of instructional time students spend taking required statewide standardized assessments to ensure that no child spends more than 2 percent of her classroom time taking these tests. Parents should receive formal notification if their child’s school exceeds this cap and an action plan should be publicly posted to describe the steps the state will take to review and eliminate unnecessary assessments, and come into compliance. States and school districts should carefully consider whether each assessment serves a unique, essential role in ensuring that students are learning.

Where did the 2 percent come from, and how does that compare to what is happening in classrooms today?

Well, the two-year study that the administration pre-empted, done by the nonprofit Council of Great City Schools, says that students generally spend 2.3 percent of their time taking standardized tests, and that, it says, is excessive. The 2 percent recommendation comes from New York state, where the legislature last year passed a law with that limit.

[Educators alarmed by some questions on N.Y. Common Core tests]

It is also the state where, as I wrote here, Common Core State Standards implementation and standardized testing administration have been so mishandled in recent years that Gov. Andrew Cuomo, turned on John King, the commissioner of education who resigned late last year and this year turned up as No. 2 to Duncan. Now, King is the designated successor to Duncan when he leaves his post at the end of this year. According to a spokeswoman in the office of the head of the Education Committee of the New York state Senate, here’s how the state cap was devised: local standardized tests already took up no more than 1 percent of students’ time, so state education officials took that 1 percent, added another 1 percent for state-mandated tests and came up with 2 percent.

So what does this look like in actual hours? Tim Farley, principal of an elementary/middle school in upstate New York and founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, wrote here:

“In New York, as Cuomo has reminded us, we already have a 2% cap on time spent on standardized testing. What does that actually mean? In New York we have 180 school days and an average school day runs about 6.5 hours. If one does the math that’s 180 x 6.5 x 2% = 23.4 hours of testing. So, by law, we cannot exceed 23.4 hours of standardized testing in grades 3–8.
“This begs the question — How much time do kids in grades 3–8 spend on the state tests in English Language Arts and math? If you are a general education student, you will spend roughly nine hours in a testing room for both the ELA and math tests. If you are a student with a learning disability (SWD), and you have a testing accommodation of “double time,” you get to sit in a testing location for eighteen hours. As insane as that seems, it is still 5.4 hours short of the time allowed by law. A 2% cap isn’t a step forward, it’s a giant leap backward.

Obama’s Testing Action Plan urges Congress to “ensure that states place a cap on the percentage of instructional time students spend taking required state standardized assessments.” Do we really want Congress — which passed No Child Left Behind and its testing mandates — to stay involved in how much testing time students have in school? How would a reasonable cap be decided anyway, given the different views people hold on the value of testing?

The Testing Action Plan does not, incidentally, recommend a specific limit on test prep time. On that it says:

Moreover, low-quality test preparation strategies must be eliminated.  States, districts, and educators should eliminate “drill-and-kill” test prep that is a poor use of students’ and educators’ classroom time.  Students do best on high-quality assessments that actually measure critical thinking and complex skills when they have been exposed to strong instruction, which should be the focus.  Districts should take concrete steps to discourage and limit the amount of test preparation activities.

The Testing Action Plan also does not call for the elimination of using standardized test scores to evaluate educators, which assessment experts — including the American Statistical Association, which ought to know something about numbers — say is an invalid evaluation tool for this purposes.  If the method used — called “value-added measurement” — is not reliable or valid for the purposes of evaluating teachers, it shouldn’t be used at all. But the Action Plan calls for “reducing the reliance on student test scores” for evaluation purposes, but it is worth noting that the Education Department yanked Washington state’s NCLB waiver in 2014 because the legislature didn’t approve legislation requiring that teachers be evaluated by test scores. The Action Plan says:

Educator evaluation requirements: The Administration has adjusted its policies to provide greater flexibility to states in determining how much weight to ascribe to statewide standardized test results in educator evaluation systems required under the Administration’s ESEA flexibility policy. The Administration will continue to work with states and districts to ensure this flexibility is understood and employed, and to ensure states and districts are focusing on improving their own capacity around the other critical components of high-quality educator evaluations, such as student and parent surveys, and observation and feedback systems.

 [Statisticians slam popular teacher evaluation method]

The document makes seven major points about assessments:

*They must be worth taking: “Testing should be a part of good instruction, not a departure from it.”
*They must be high-quality: “High-quality assessment results in actionable, objective information about student knowledge and skills.
*They must be time-limited.
*They must be fair: “Assessments should be fair, including providing fair measures of student learning for students with disabilities and English learners. Accessibility features and accommodations must level the playing field so tests accurately reflect what students really know and can do.
*They must be “fully transparent” to students and parents: “States and districts should ensure that every parent gets understandable information about the assessments their students are taking.”
*They must be just one evaluation measure: “Assessments provide critical information about student learning, but no single assessment should ever be the sole factor in making an educational decision about a student, an educator, or a school.”
*They must be “tied to improved learning: While some tests are for accountability purposes only, the vast majority of assessments should be tools in a broader strategy to improve teaching and learning.”

There is something remarkable about the notion that this administration found the need, seven years in, to state that standardized tests must be worth taking, of high quality and fair. For years we’ve heard teachers complain that test scores don’t come in a timely manner for them to use the scores to help individual students (for example, Common Core test scores come after the school year is over). Now the administration finds this a problem?

The document also promises that the administration will helpany state or district that wishes to consult on how it can best reduce testing but still meet its policy objectives and requirements under the law” and will “share tools already available to do this work, including The Council of Chief State School Officers’ Comprehensive Statewide Assessment Systems: A Framework for the Role of the State Education Agency in Improving Quality and Reducing Burden and Achieve’s Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts. The council and Achieve are prime movers behind the Common Core State Standards initiative.

Ultimately, there are a number of reasons why standardized testing isn’t likely to let up all that much, despite the administration’s plan. Anya Kamenetz, an education blogger for NPR who wrote a book published this year called “The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing — But You Don’t Have to Be,” argues in this post that the testing culture is entrenched in our schools and that those who profit both financially and academically from the tests won’t give let it go easily. “Our society is locked into a testing arms race,” she wrote — and the path out seems dim.

[Five reasons standardized testing isn’t likely to let up]