Obama and The Department of Education Are Missing the Point About Testing

A couple weeks ago, President Obama gave a speech and also a wrote on open letter about his supposed change of heart regarding testing. It’s actually not a change of heart–he’s always said he’s opposed to punitive testing (and his kids don’t suffer under that regime), even as he has supported policies that have been the opposite of what he says. Unfortunately, the cognitive dissonance of being the political wing of the Pritzker family is starting to rear its ugly head (boldface mine):

And a student of body language might also have cause to wonder while watching the President’s video message. What to make of the striking way in which, when speaking of the value of tests for students, Obama suddenly jerks his head backwards, and bats his eyelids for a prolonged moment, while asserting that tests “can help them … uh … learn”? If this is not the Commander in Chief’s most commanding moment, it may be because he knows that the testing regimen, at least as it currently is implemented, has limited efficacy for students when it comes to helping them, uh, learn. As the Council of the Great City Schools report notes, many districts have to wait between two and four months before final state test results are made available to schools, which means that they often come much too late in the school year to provide teachers with any practical information about how to help or guide the individual students under their care and instruction.

What Obama’s shying away from the camera—his appearance of being less than persuaded by his own words—underlined is the fact that, as they are currently administered at least, test results are most meaningful in aggregate. This has led to their use and overuse in measuring not the abilities of individual children but, rather, the performance of teachers and educational institutions. Casserly’s remark, in releasing the survey results, that “it will take considerable effort to recreate something more intelligent” does not inspire optimism that the Administration’s learning curve will quickly be redrawn. (Arne Duncan’s successor as Secretary of Education is John King, the former New York State Commissioner of Education, who has thus far been a vocal defender of standardized testing.)

In Obama’s open letter, it’s telling he only mentions the word teacher once. Here’s his three principles of testing:

I’ve asked the Department of Education to work aggressively with states and school districts to make sure that any tests we use in our classroom meet three basic principles.

First, our kids should only take tests that are worth taking — tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction, and make sure everyone is on track.

Second, tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time, or crowd out teaching and learning.

And third, tests should be just one source of information. We should use classroom work, surveys, and other factors to give us an all-around look at how our students and schools are doing.

But that’s missing the point entirely: the time for testing, while at times onerous (for computerized tests, there aren’t often enough computers, meaning tests have to be staggered), isn’t the worst part. It’s the weeks before the test prepping for the tests, as opposed to teaching them new material. It’s the closing of the curriculum to anything other than reading and math (and sometimes science)–especially for disadvantaged students who won’t get exposure to the arts anywhere else. It’s all of the chicanery and sometimes outright fraud–which is to say corruption–that goes into gaming the scores.

As long as ‘high stakes’ for principals, students, and teachers are attached to the tests, Campbell’s Law will be operational. That means the tests aren’t measuring what you think they are.

Obama still doesn’t get this.

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