Arne Duncan Blows Standardized Smoke

As soon as CCSSO and CGCS announced their non-plan to provide PR coverage for the high stakes test-and-punish status quo, Arne Duncan was there to throw his tooter on the bandwagon. On top of an official word salad on the subject, Arne popped up in the Washington Post. (and other news outlets)

There was a time when Duncan could be counted on to at least say the right thing before he went ahead and did the wrong thing. And I cannot fault his opening for the WaPo piece.

As a parent, I want to know how my children are progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of their teachers during the school day.

He's absolutely correct here. It's just that his words have nothing to do with the policies pursued by his Department of Education.

Duncan welcomes the stated intention "to examine their assessment systems, ensure that assessments are high-quality and cut back testing that doesn't meet that bar or is redundant." Duncan does not welcome an examination of the way in which standardized testing is driving actual education out of classrooms across America.

He makes his case for standardized testing here:

Parents have a right to know how much their children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are excelling, improving and struggling.

As a case for standardized testing, this is wrong on all three points.

1) Parents do have a right to know how much their children are learning. And standardized tests are by far the least effective instruments for informing them. They are tiny snapshots, providing little or no description of how students are growing and changing. Standardized tests (particularly tests that only cover math and reading) measure one thing -- how well students do on standardized tests.

2) Teachers, schools and districts need to know how students are doing. And if a teacher needs a standardized test to tell her how her students are doing, that teacher is a dope, and needs to get out of teaching immediately. I measure my students dozens of times every single week, collecting wide and varied "data" that informs my view of how each student is doing. A standardized test will tell me one thing -- how that student does with a standardized test. If the school or district does not know whether they can trust my word or not about how the student is doing, the school and district are a dope. Standardized tests offer no useful information for this picture.

3) Explain, please, exactly why policymakers need to know how my third period class is doing on paragraph construction? Why do the bureaucrats in state and federal capitols need to know where students are "excelling, improving and struggling"? Is Congress planning to pass the "Clearer Lesson Plans About 19th Century American Literature Studies Act"? Are you suggesting that there are aides in the DOE standing by to help me write curriculum? Because I cannot for the life of me figure out why the policymakers (nice term, that, since it includes both the legislators who pass policy and the unelected suits who write it for them) need to have standardized results on every single kid in this country.

Duncan follows this up with a reference to another of his pet theories -- that students with learning disabilities just needed to be tested harder in order to fix their difficulties.

Duncan goes on to admit that "in some places" testing is eating up calendars and stressing students.

Policymakers at every level bear responsibility here -- and that includes me and my department. We will support state and district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance to those who seek it.

In one sense, Duncan is correct. Policymakers at the state and local level bear responsibility for not telling the federal government to take its testing mandates and shove them where the NCLB-based money threats don't shine. Duncan's Department of Education bears responsibility for everything else.

This is the worst kind of weasel wording. This is the kid who sets fire to the neighbors house and then says to the kids who just tried to talk him out of it, "So, we're all in this together, right?"

It was the Duncan/Obama Education Department that twisted every state's arm up behind its ear and said, "If you want your Get Out Of NCLB Free Card, you will make testing the cornerstone of your education system. You'll use it to judge your students, your teachers and your schools, or else." Duncan does not get to pretend that this testing mania, this out of control testing monster, somehow just fell from the sky. "Gosh," Duncan says and shrugs. "I guess there was just something in the water that year that made everybody just suddenly go crazypants on the testing thing. Guess we'll all have to try harder, boys."

No. No no no no. Testing mania is the direct mandated result of NCLB and its ugly stepsister Race to the Top. It didn't just happen. The federal government required it. And if Duncan really thought this was an actual problem and not just a PR problem, he is the one guy who could wave his magic waiver wand and say, "My bad. Your waiver no longer requires you to test everything that moves and use the test results as the basis for all educational system judgments."

I mean -- the states did not just suddenly all say, "You know, wouldn't it be fun to make test results part of teacher evaluations." That was a federal freaking mandate. It was a part of the NCLB based extortion, written into the offer that states could not refuse. NCLB enfederalized high stakes testing, and Race to the Top tripled down on it, and no policymakers outside the beltway ever had a say.

So no, Arne -- you do not get to pretend that "policymakers at every level" are responsible for the test-based gutting of education. Policymakers at your level -- specifically the policymakers who work in your office -- are responsible. All by themselves. No others.

Then it's back to the usual baloney. We've been falling behind educationally for "a generation" (because, kids these days). Dropout rates are down; college enrollment is up (because, you know, college is magic). Educators are taking steps to improve U.S. education, because they are now "empowered to be creative and to teach critical thinking skills" (because creativity and critical thinking were only invented four years ago, and had never before been used in classrooms).

Also -- this whole testing problem is also going to be solved because we totally spent a bunch of free federal money on grants to develop super duper awesometastic tests that will be sooooo much better than current bubble tests (which are apparently not so great, though that has not led to anyone in DC saying, "yeah, you probably shouldn't use those any more"). These tests will be hella amazing and OMGZ -- they will measure writing and critical thinking exactly the same way for every single student in the country. Because if there's one thing we know about critical thinking and good writing, it's that they can always be measured exactly the same way for exactly the same results across the entire population of a country.

At this point I don't know if Duncan is an extraordinary liar or staggeringly clueless. But the WaPo piece ends with this line:

The writer is U.S. secretary of education.

So the piece at least begins and ends with something true. It's only everything in between that is wrong. 

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