Obama Vows to Reduce Testing — But Doing So May Be Harder than it Seems

Story updated Oct. 26
Kids tired of taking tests and parents who want to opt out of them can rest easy, says the Obama administration. In the wake of a new report finding huge amounts of testing across the country, the U.S. Department of Education committed Saturday to working to reduce the testing burden on the nation’s schools.
But don’t burn the No. 2 pencils just yet. Significantly reducing testing will likely require a more dramatic change than federal and state policymakers appear ready to make.
The report, released by the Council of Great City Schools, surveyed 66 large school districts across the country and found that the average student sits for a total of 112 standardized tests during their school careers. An eighth grader, for instance, spends about 2.3 percent of the school year — or 20 to 25 hours — taking standardized tests. Because of the report’s methods, this is an upper range estimate. On the other hand, it does not account for time spent on test preparation or teacher-created assessments.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration released a video from the president himself promising a reduction in testing, as well as a press release outlining plans to do so. Notably the announcement acknowledges that  “the Administration bears some of the responsibility for [too much testing], and we are committed to being part of the solution.”
Steps that the Department of Education plan to take include providing money to support states in developing “better less burdensome assessments” and giving “flexibility from federal mandates” to allow for reduced testing. However, the administration reiterated its support for “protecting the vital role that good assessment plays in guiding progress for students and evaluating schools and educators.”
You may be getting deja vu. In August 2014, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan held a press conference and wrote a blog post that said, “In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction … This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.”
Perhaps the administration is back in the same spot because significantly cutting back testing would require backing off one of its top education priorities: tying teacher evaluation to student test scores.
At an event in Washington Monday to unveil and discuss the results of the report, participants largely skirted the issue of tying educator evaluations to student test scores, focusing instead on the idea that students should only take tests that inform teaching and learning.
The new report did not capture a precise measure on what proportion of tests were required by teacher evaluation, but it does point out that many states have put in place new assessments “to satisfy state regulations and laws for teacher and principal evaluation driven by and approved by U.S. Department of Education policies.”
Alberto M. Carvalho, superintendent of the Miami-Dade County schools, speaking at the Monday event unveiling the report, blamed teacher evaluations for a lion’s share of the over-testing. (Read The Seventy Four’s take on Miami-Dade’s dramatic school turnaround under Carvalho)
“Let’s not forget also that in many cases assessments in the state of Florida and across the country reflect the proverbial tail wagging the dog. They were not generated for the purpose of informing teaching and learning. They were generated as a matter of statutory requirement to drive teachers evaluations,” he said.
But an initial reading of the department’s guidance suggests it is sticking to these policies: “The Department will work with states that wish to amend (their federal) flexibility waiver … while still maintaining teacher and leader evaluation and support systems that include growth in student learning.”  (emphasis added)
The problem the administration faces is that it is incredibly difficult to measure a teacher’s contribution to student growth in the absence of a standardized test. An older document from the department outlined three options:
  • A standardized assessment
  • A teacher-developed test that is “rigorous and comparable across classrooms.”
  • A group measure “of collective performance,” in which teachers are evaluated by the scores of students they don’t teach or on subjects they don’t teach.
The two alternatives to standardized testing both have problems. Using tests teachers create for their own evaluations makes consistency and rigor difficult, while group measures have sparked lawsuits and charges of unfairness.
The administration hopes to expand the use of non-traditional tests, such as portfolio- or performance-based assessments. This approach may increase buy-in from teachers and students, but it is likely more difficult and expensive to implement and may not actually reduce time spent testing.
The Education Department also said it will rework a pending rule to tie the student test scores of newer teachers back to the teacher preparation program where they were trained.
The change comes in response to comments received on the proposed rule, incoming education secretary John King said at the Monday event.  The administration wants to make sure teacher prep programs have feedback on their graduates, but it shouldn’t so heavily rely on students’ scores, King said.
“This is something that will evolve over time, and we want to make sure we have room for states to be innovative and creative.”
Even if the department gave states flexibility from using tests in teacher evaluation, many states have laws on the books — often passed in order to compete for federal funding — mandating all teachers be evaluated based on student growth. New York, for example, requires that 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation come from student test scores.
It certainly appears some districts could reduce time on testing by, say, reducing duplicative assessments or eliminating certain pre-testing.
Carvalho, the Miami superintendent, said the Florida legislature required end-of-course exams for teacher evaluation in nearly every class taught in the state. He and other school leaders sought relief, and after the governor issued an executive order last school year, schools were able to significantly reduce the number of end-of-course exams.
In Miami-Dade, they eliminated all 23 tests at the elementary level, and in middle school cut the end-of-course tests from 77 to four. At high schools, those types of exams dropped from 186 to six.
“The next phase of the conversation cannot just be a cap as a percentage of time consumed by testing, it’s really both a quantitative analysis of how many exams, but also a robust and honest conversation about the relevance, the duplication of effort, and the real intent and purpose behind these assessments, and that is very much a qualitative conversation about what assessments in America should in fact measure,” Carvalho said.
But a commitment in other parts of the country to evaluating every teacher every year with some of form of student learning suggests that it will be difficult to dramatically lower the assessment burden.
Until a more fundamental shift in federal and state policy occurs, testing — for better or worse — is likely here to stay.
The Seventy Four’s Washington, D.C.-based reporter Carolyn Phenicie contributed to this report

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