The Problem with Obama's New Testing Plan? It's Terrible, and It Changes Absolutely Nothing

As I noted in an earlier post, the Obama administration's announcement of, "Wow, this testing thing sure is out of control. We should do something," is absolutely nothing new—we went through the exact same exercise last year.


What is new this time around is a presidential video and an action plan. But there's a problem with the action plan: it sucks. More specifically, it doesn't represent any shift in administrative policy at all.

Let's take a look at this action plan that some folks are so excited aboutStart with the first three sentences:

"One essential part of educating students successfully is assessing their progress in learning to high standards. Done well and thoughtfully, assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity. They provide necessary information for educators, families, the public, and students themselves to measure progress and improve outcomes for all learners."

Read those sentences carefully, because they make one thing crystal clear: the administration's philosophy on Big Standardized Testing has not shifted so much as a micro-millimeter. The rest of the document simply underlines that.

The preamble goes on to talk about "bad" tests that have been proliferating out there:

"... unintended effects of policies that have aimed to provide more useful information to educators, families, students, and policymakers and to ensure attention to the learning progress of low-income and minority students, English learners, students with disabilities, and members of other groups that have been traditionally underserved. These aims are right, but support in implementing them well has been inadequate, including from this Administration. We have focused on encouraging states to take on these challenges and to provide them with flexibility. One of the results of this approach is that we have not provided clear enough assistance for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment."

Before you get excited about the administration taking "some" blame for the testing mess, please notice what they think their mistake was—not telling states specifically enough what they were supposed to do. They provided states with flexibility when they should have provided hard and fast crystal clear directions

Because yes, the problem with education reform has been not enough federal control of state education departments.

Now, here come the guidelines for getting "fewer and smarter assessments." According to the Obama administration, assessments must now be:

1. Worth taking.

The assessment should provide info about how the student is doing in a quick and actionable manner. It should be part of good instruction. And my favorite line, "No standardized test should be given solely for educator evaluation." 

2. High quality.

That means it covers all the state standards (looking forward to those speaking, listening and collaborating tests), elicits complex demonstration of knowledge, accurately measures student achievement, and provides accurate measure of student growth. Now personally, I think they just ruled out every single BS Test currently on the market. But I'm pretty sure the administration believes the opposite; that they have just described the PARCC, SBA and all their bastard cousins.

3. Time-limited.

Here's the famous 2% rule. Only 2% of instructional time can be spent on testing. I've seen many computations here, but my back-of-envelope figures say 180 days times 6 hours a day times 2% equals 21.6 hours for testing. Thanks a lot.

The action plan also forbids "drill and kill" test prep, and while they're at it, banning quill pens would be great, too. Let's also ban riding penny-farthings. Test prep, of which we all do a great deal, and of which we continue to do a great deal, is not drill and kill.

4. Fair.

There's a bunch of pretty language, but what it boils down to is the same old administrative position: the BS Test, unmodified and unadapted, must be taken by all students, including students with special needs and English language learners (because taking the same test will magically erase all their obstacles).

5. Fully transparent to students and parents.

This sounds great until you look at the fine print. "Transparent" here means that students and parents are told the purpose of the test, the source of the test requirement, when the information from the test comes back to teachers, how the school uses info from the test, and how parents can use it. So the content of the test, the validity and reliability of the test, the questions on the test, the development of cut scores, and the exact questions that resulted in the student's score—all of that will remain completely opaque.

But extra kudos to that second requirement, which is basically that the school has to say, "This is not a federally required test" whenever they're doing local assessments or one of those many pre-test practice test tests (like LWEA's MAP).

6. Just one of multiple measures.

Sooooo... states must have fewer assessments, but those tests are only allowable if they are combined with other assessments. Plus other measures. Don't worry. The feds will have a handy list of exactly what is needed.

7. Tied to improved student learning.

Test results have to be used to shape teachers, instruction, etc. etc. etc.

Things the Department of Education Will Do To Help Out

The feds will be providing money for getting rid of excess unnecessary tests that aren't as awesome as the tests that meet the above criteria. The feds will also provide "expertise" which seems to mean "guidelines" for what states should do and somebody sitting by a phone states can call for consultation. The feds will provide more flexibility to meet their more specific mandates— good lord, but what kind of mind-twist does one have to go through to do government work?

They also note that they will reduce reliance on test results for decision-making. Then they elaborate the opposite. For instance, remember that wacky idea to evaluate teacher education programs based on the student test scores of the teacher program graduates? Yeah, they're still totally doing that. They'll just throw in some more data, of some sort, on top. They also still want student test scores to factor in teacher evaluations, but states can go ahead and throw in other measures "such as student and parent surveys, and observation and feedback systems." So, a combination of Things States Already Do and Really Terrible Ideas.

Some Exemplars

The action plan lists some good examples, like, hey, look! It's New York, the state previously goobered up by incoming Fake Secretary of Education John King, who previously tried to "reduce testing" by trying to get everyone to drop all tests except the BS Test.

And North Carolina is an example, which is impressive since these days North Carolina is mostly an exemplar of How To Turn Your State Into The Worst Place in America For Public Education. Their cliff-bound bus has been driven by conservative GOP leadership, prompting me to wonder for the 60 gazillionth time if our current administration remembers which party they theoretically belong to. But hey, North Carolina has a Task Force! About Stuff! So, do that, everyone.

Exemplary states also include Tennessee, Florida, the District of Columbia and Delaware, among others. The array of examples are all completely in line with long-standing administration policies and represent absolutely no change in direction whatsoever. Just saying.

About the ESEA

The action plan has a wish list for the new Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). Since all of these items involve making states more accountable to and guided by the feds when it comes to all testing in public schools, I think we can safely say these items have less of a future than a sculpted ice swan on the banquet tables of hell.

What the Action Plan Doesn't Include

The action plan does not address the issue of grad-span testing. There is not a word here, not a comma, to back one inch away from testing every student every year. Pretending to address over-testing without addressing every-student-every-year policies is a sham.

And it certainly doesn't examine the premise of whether or not we need any BS Tests at all, ever, for anything.

The action plan does not address what test data will be, and what it will be used for. Talking about actionable data is great, but there's nothing here to address that the actual outcome of BS Testing is ranking a student as either Great, Okay, or Not So Hot—and that's it. There is no depth or detail to the data, absolutely nothing that is of the slightest use to a classroom teacher over and above what we already collect ourselves on a daily basis. BS Testing is not just a waste of time, when the "results" come back, it is a farce.

Nor does the administration back away from using test results to judge teachers, schools and students; the number-one policy choice responsible for the emphasis on testing in schools (an emphasis the policy was always meant to create). To ignore that policy linkage and its effects is to declare yourself uninterested in really changing the culture of testing that is poisoning public education.

The action plan does not address the question of test quality. Not really. It does not address the issue of doing the work necessary to see if the BS Tests actually measure any of the things they claim to measure.

And the action plan certainly doesn't include any statement about how the judgment of classroom teachers should not be superseded by a standardized test.

Have We Been Heard?

Despite the fact that the action plan offers no real change and no actual examination of the issues around test-driven education, many folks have been dancing the happy dance all weekend. They should probably stop.

Yes, I get it, POTUS actually made some mouth noises that he knows something is up with testing. But look. When someone says, "I hear you," you have to wait for the rest of the sentence. Because there is a difference between "I hear you, and we are going to find a way to fix this," and "I hear you, and we are going to find a way to shut you up."

The fact that the administration noticed, again, that there's an issue here is nice. But all they're doing is laying down a barrage of protective PR cover. This is, once again, worse than nothing because it not only doesn't really address the problem, it encourages everyone to throw a victory party, put down their angry signs, and go home. Don't go to the party, and don't put down your signs.

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