A few days ago at a student forum, a young woman asked President Obama, "Could you reduce the amount of tests?"
The President didn't say yes. What he did say is that "we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids." He asserted that such tests should be given only "occasionally" as at his daughters' private school, and even then the tests shouldn't have high-stakes attached. "Too often," he said, "what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools."
Some folks were amazed to hear this strong statement against misuse and overuse of standardized tests from a president whose Department of Education is prepared to expand standardized testing to unprecedented levels in its proposal for reauthorizing federal education laws.
How do the President and Education Secretary Arne Duncan reconcile these seemingly opposite positions?
They use two words: better tests.
Here it is in a White House press release from last month, titled "President Obama Calls on Congress to Fix No Child Left Behind Before the Start of the Next School Year":
NCLB status quo: Rely on unsophisticated bubble tests to grade students and schools.
The Obama Plan: Support better tests.
And here's how we're supposed to get those "better tests":
The recently completed common core state standards define what K-12 students need to know in order to be prepared for college and career. These national standards have been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia. Work is now beginning on new assessments for these standards. The Department of Education has already issued $350 million for the project.
Most states have joined one of two groups developing these tests, either the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).
A recent report offers detailed information about the groups' emerging proposals and their challenges in creating this "new generation" of tests.
The thing that jumped out at me from the pages of this report was that they really don't know how to do what they plan to do.
Here are some direct quotes (emphasis added):
PARCC plans to press for advances in automated scoring, including the use of artificial intelligence (p. 9).
Studies will need to be carried out to gain deeper understanding than we currently have to support these decisions (p. 15).
Designing these components such that they can be placed onto a common scale and equated from year to year may require new approaches (p. 16).
New advances are needed to produce reliable sub-scores for both writing and the content area constructs assessed (p. 16).
A number of technical and psychometric challenges will be investigated during the development phase to determine if and how the scores from these multiple components can be aggregated to yield valid, reliable and legally defensible scores (p. 9).
I shared some of these quotes with a group of visiting assessment professionals from the Ukraine a while ago. They told me that they would be fired if they knew so little about what they were doing, and they were in the US to learn from us about assessment.
It's pretty clear that lots of people, possibly from the President on down, don't really know that the "new generation of tests" doesn't exist, nor it is likely ever to exist.
Meanwhile, plans are being made state by state and district by district for more and higher stakes to be attached to tests because they are going to be "better" under the new federal education law.
The test developers say that there are "unresolved challenges" in creating these tests.
I say that we -- and our children -- can't afford to risk so much on those promises of "better tests."