President Obama Opts Out of High Stakes Testing

Finally. In the twilight of his Presidency, President Obama seems to feel free to say what he really thinks about guns and racial profiling and climate change and…testing. Yes, he’s sorry about all of those high stakes standardized tests like PARCC that I have been bemoaning since I started blogging two years ago.

From Raise Your Hand Illinois

From Raise Your Hand Illinois

A comprehensive report by the Washington-based Council of the Great City Schools reveals “Students across the nation are taking tests that are redundant, misaligned with college- and career-ready standards, and often don't address students' mastery of specific content…” Going forward, according to the Department of Education’s Testing Action Plan (October 24, 2015), we need fewer, shorter, better, and fairer assessments that provide understandable and useful information to students, parents, and teachers. The new recommendation is for assessment based on multiple measures that actually helps to improve teaching and learning.

Isn’t this what educators, students, and parents have been saying while we raced to the top, leaving many children behind? I guess it took fourteen years of high stakes standardized testing being used to drive curriculum, label children, evaluate teachers, and sanction schools to convince politicians and businessmen to be open to trying something new.

I had been writing about this issue for years in my capacity as an early childhood educator. Early in my blogging career, in October of 2013, I declared there was Too Much Standardized Testing and reminded readers that Mr. Rogers and Dr. Seuss Would Have Hated Standardized Testing. In November I explained, Why I am Mad at Arne Duncan Today. Remember when he declared this?

“It’s fascinating to me that some of the push back is coming from, sort of, white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were, and that’s pretty scary.”

By March of 2014, I was ranting about a Chicago Tribune editorial by asking, “Life is a Test” – Really? A couple of months later, I took issue with the use of standardized testing for assessing special education progress, Arne Duncan and Special Education – A Dangerous Mixture.

Then the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) test became the focus of the 2014-15 school year. I worried about Getting Ready for PARCC Testing – What Will it do to our Teachers? I fretted about PARCC – A Test No One Wants to Give but Everyone has to Take. 

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By January of 2015, I was attending community meetings where the notions of opting out and civil disobedience were now connected to PARCC and folks were pretty unhappy about how this test was dominating and distorting the curriculum. PARCC Standardized Test Divides Evanston – Part I and Part II, and the unfairness of the lack of opt-out guidelines, particularly for children with special needs really upset me (Special Education, the PARCC Test, and Opting Out). In early March, I explained that Excessive Testing Removes Bulletin Boards and Children’s Imaginations. By late March, I had concluded that the politicians forcing this test down the throats of children were PARCC Bullies.

It felt like all of my posts and those of many others fell on deaf ears. Some children opted out of taking PARCC, but most swallowed the bitter pill. So how much did all of that standardized testing improve educational outcomes? Oops, the results were even worse than I had imagined as PARCC Test Fails Kids Again.

Maybe you didn’t check out all of my links, but you get the idea. There are better and more meaningful ways to assess learning and teaching than one-size-fits-all tests like PARCC.

The National Education Policy Center (NEPC) is an organization affiliated with the School of Education, University of Colorado Boulder whose mission is “to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions,” and is “guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.” [Emphasis mine] NEPC notes that the Obama administration’s shift on testing acknowledges that the testing/accountability movement ushered in by No Child Left Behind in 2001 under President Bush and perpetuated by President Obama’s Race to the Top in 2009 failed to produce the hoped for improvements to public education. In other words, there is no sound evidence that what we have been forcing on our kids, teachers, and school has helped move the needle in education.

In fact, many folks like me have felt this approach has made things much worse. While our schools continued to fail our children, the kids were subjected to excessive and meaningless tests and their teachers were unfairly evaluated based on the results. Curriculum was reduced to an overemphasis on the things that would be tested, mostly reading and math, and educators were forced to spend vast amounts of time teaching to the tests. Things deteriorated to the point where many families joined the opt-out movement and skipped these tests entirely.

In Following Obama Administration’s Announcement on Test Reductions, New Brief Considers Alternative Accountability Approaches, NEPC managing director William J. Mathis talks about three approaches to ensuring school accountability:

  1. The testing model we have endured since 2001 in which children, schools, and teachers are assessed based on test scores alone, and low scores result in sanctions. Research shows this model to be at best ineffective and at worst harmful.
  2. Using multiple measures (in addition to standardized tests) for assessing students, teachers, and schools. This seems to be what President Obama is now recommending.
  3. School self-evaluation confirmed by inspections. Of course, this is only as good as the inspectors and assumes these evaluators will be trained and well qualified.

Mathis believes policy makers must consider several important factors including opportunities and resources available to students, development of multiple measures and cautious use of standardized test results, development of trained school visitation teams with priority given to higher needs schools, providing guidance and support rather than sanctions, and ensuring that multiple stakeholders are involved in designing new methods of assessment.

If we want to develop a reasonable system for assessment of students, teachers, administrators, and schools, we need to bring the real stakeholders to the table. There are many great ideas out there. What we don’t need are more ideas from the educational-industrial complex that makes huge profits from curricular and testing materials. And we need politicians at the table who will listen to what educators, students, and parents have to say.

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