The Obama Administration’s (Smoke and Mirrors) Calls for “Less Testing”

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For those of you who have not yet heard, last weekend the Obama Administration released a new “Testing Action Plan” in which the administration calls for a “decreased,” “curbed,” “reversed,” less “obsessed,” etc. emphasis on standardized testing for the nation. The plan, headlined as such, has hit the proverbial “front pages” of many news (and other) outlets since. See, for example, articles in The New York Times, The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Washington Post, CNN, US News & World Report, Education Week, and the like.

The gist of the “Testing Action Plan” is that student-level tests, when “[d]one poorly, in excess, or without clear purpose…take valuable time away from teaching and learning, draining creative approaches from our classrooms.” It is about time the federal government acknowledges this, officially, and kudos to them for “bear[ing] some of the responsibility for this” throughout the nation. However, they also assert that testing is, nevertheless, still essential as long as tests “take up the minimum necessary time, and reflect the expectation that students will be prepared for success.”

What is this “necessary time” of which they speak?

They set the testing limits for all states not to exceed 2%. More specifically, they, “recommend that states place a cap on the percentage of instructional time students spend taking required statewide standardized assessments to ensure that… [pause marker added] no child spends more than 2 percent of her classroom time taking these tests [emphasis added].” Notice the circumlocution here as per No Child Left Behind (NCLB) — that which substantively helped bring us to become such a test-crazed nation in the first place.

When I first heard this, though, the first thing I did was pull out my trusty calculator to determine what this would actually mean in practice. If students across the nation attend school 180 days (which is standard), and they spend approximately 5 of approximately 6 hours each of these 180 days in instruction (e.g., not including lunch), this would mean that students spend approximately 900 educative hours in school every year (i.e., 180 days x 5 hours/day). If we take 2% of 900, that yields an approximate number of actual testing hours (as “recommended” and possibly soon to be mandated by the feds, pending a legislative act of congress) equal to 18 hours per academic year. “Assess” for yourself whether you think that amount of testing time (i.e., 18 hours of just test taking per student across all public schools) is to reduce the nation’s current over-emphasis on testing, especially given this does not include the time it takes for what the feds also define as high-quality “test preparation strategies,” either.

Nonetheless, President Obama also directed the U.S. Department of Education to review its test-based policies to also address places where the feds may have contributed to the problem, but might also contribute to the (arguably token) solutions (i.e., by offering financial support to help states develop better and less burdensome tests, by offering “expertise” to help states reduce time spent on testing – see comment about the 2% limit prior). You can see their other strategies in their “Testing Action Plan.” Note, however, that it also clearly states within this plan that the feds will do this to help states still “meet [states’] policy objectives and requirements [as required] under [federal] law,” although the feds also state that they will become at least a bit more flexible on this end, as well.

In this regard, the feds express that they will provide more flexibility and support in terms of non-tested grades and subjects, and the extent to which states that wish to amend their NCLB flexibility waivers (e.g., in terms of evaluating out-of-tested-subject-area teachers). However, states will still be required to maintain their “teacher and leader evaluation and support systems that include [and rely upon] growth in student learning [emphasis added]” (e.g., by providing states with greater flexibility when determining how much weight to ascribe to teacher-level growth measures).

How clever of the feds to carry out such a smoke and mirrors explanation.

Another indicator of this is the fact that the 10 states that the feds highlight in their “Testing Action Plan” as the states in which educational leaders are helping to lead these federal initiatives are as follows: Delaware, Florida, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Washington DC. Seven of these 10 states (except for Delaware, Minnesota, and Rhode Island) are the 7 states about which I write blog posts most often, as these 7 states have the most draconian educational policies mandating high-stakes use of said tests across the nation. In addition, Massachusetts, New Mexico, and New York are the states leading the nation in terms of the national opt-out movement. This is not because these states are leading the way in focusing less on said tests.

In addition, all of this was also based (at least in part, see also here) on new survey results recently released by the Council of the Great City Schools, in which researchers set out to determine how much time is spent on testing. They found that across their (large) district members, the average time spent testing was “surprisingly low [?!?]” at 2.34%, which study authors calculate to be approximately 4.22 total days spent on just testing (i.e., around 21 hours if one assumes, again, an average day’s instructional time = 5 hours). Again, this does not include time spent preparing for tests, nor does it include other non-standardized tests (e.g., those that teachers develop and use to assess their students’ learning).

So, really, the feds did not decrease the amount of time spent testing really at all, they literally just rounded down, losing 34 hundredths of a whole. For more information about this survey research study, click here.

If these two indicators are not both indicators of something (else) gone awry within the feds’ “Testing Action Plan,” not to mention the hype surrounding it, I don’t know what are. I do know one thing for certain, though, that it is way too soon to call this announcement or the Obama administration’s “Testing Action Plan” a victory. Relief from testing is really not on the way (see, for example, here). Additional details are to be released in January.

1 thought on “The Obama Administration’s (Smoke and Mirrors) Calls for “Less Testing”

  1. The smoke and mirrors that you mention here might actually constitute an even bigger deception than we originally thought. I just gave the Council of Great City Schools’ report a closer read ( Pay particular attention to the bottom half of page 28, where it tells us that the 2.34 percent of total instructional time was calculated based on the the amount of testing in EIGHTH grade (the most heavily tested grade level). While it is true that the proposed 2% cap on testing would reduce the time that eighth graders spend taking tests by 14.6%, it would prompt a reduction of LESS THAN TEN PERCENT in the other grade levels from 4th through 11th. The proposed 2% limit would also allow testing to INCREASE for seniors and for students in Pre-K through grade 3. In fact, testing for Kindergartners and first graders would be allowed to double before the limit was hit, and Pre-K testing could increase nearly five-fold before the limits became an issue.

    Personally, I loved the US News & World Report article that you linked to, above. Robert Pondiscio gives a really salient example to illustrate that it’s not so much the amount of testing, but how the results are used that makes the difference. Even only five minutes per year of extraordinarily high-stakes testing could have far-reaching detrimental effects on teaching and learning, while hours upon hours spent on meaningful, informative, constructive assessment to which no stakes are attached, might prove to be very beneficial. Like any great magician, it seems as though the performers involved in this debate are trying really hard to get us all to focus somewhere else; ANYWHERE else, it seems, than where we SHOULD be looking.

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