Obama Fails on Testing

Barack Obama is a pretty smart guy, so it is amazing that even his efforts to compromise on high-stakes standardized testing are so far off. On testing he keeps failing the test.

After six years of pushing high-stakes testing as part of his Race to the Top education initiative, Obama decided there is now too much testing in American schools. This decision is a response to intense push back by parents and teachers against the testing regime.

It seems that the average student in some United States big-city schools now takes over 100 hundred hours of mandatory standardized tests during their school career. Eighth grade students are the most tested. They sit through between 20 and 25 hours of standardized tests, which makes up about 2.3% of school time. The Obama Administration proposed that Congress cap standardized testing at 2% of instruction time when it votes on reauthorizing federal legislation governing elementary and secondary schools.

Why 2% test time? How did this become the magic number? Nobody knows. Must have been the algorithm.

But wait kids before you celebrate. First, the highly partisan divided Congress has not been so good at passing anything. Second, the Obama proposal does not mean students will not have to take traditional teacher-made, school, and district tests which somehow did not figure into their hourly calculations.

In addition, Arne Duncan, lame-duck Education Secretary made it clear that the government still wants students tested at least once a year to make sure like railroad trains of old they stay on track. He claims he really wants to reduce student stress and he is worried about "how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction."

The problem, of course, is the kind of instruction. What Obama and Duncan seem to miss is that as long as students, teachers, schools, districts and states are evaluated based on the high-stakes standardized tests, even if test time is reduced, curriculum will still be all about test prep.

Meanwhile we have hard evidence that test prep is undermining education. Since the implementation of Common Core and Common Core aligned math tests, fourth and eighth grade student scores on non-aligned NAEP math progress tests have declined for the first time since 1990. 4th grade reading scores were flat. 8th grade reading scores declined. Test prep skills were not applicable on a different kind of exam. Prepping for Common Core aligned tests did mean students were actually learning math or to read. Duncan excused away the decline in NAEP tests scores saying it was expected because students and teachers had to adjust to new standards and policies. What Duncan evidently does not understand is that the fourth graders have only been exposed to Common Core test prep instruction so they had no adjustment to make. The problem is the test prep curriculum, not the imaginary adjustment.

Obama and Duncan also failed to address the quality of the tests. In Florida, the state's sixty-seven school superintendents are up in arms because the latest high-stakes assessments are seriously flawed. They claim the tests were designed based on a curriculum taught in Utah, but not in Florida, and that "technical glitches" invalidated student test scores. The superintendents, supported by Florida PTA, the state's School Boards Association, teachers, and administrator, are challenging the state's plan to use student scores to grade schools and evaluate teachers.

Other states face similar problems with new Common Core aligned high-stakes tests. In Nevada, computer glitches meant only thirty percent of the students completed the test. In Oregon complaints about the tests forced the state to issue a one-year moratorium on using the scores to rate schools and teachers.

In New York, Merryl Tisch, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, the governing body that overseas education in the state, announced her resignation. Tisch, who was pressured to resign because of her leadership in implementing high-stakes assessments in the state, remains unwavering in her support for the tests which she still argues are designed to impose higher standards.

The Obama Administration said it will issue "clear guidance" on testing by January. I can hardly wait. When it comes to testing, Barack Obama keeps failing the test.