Bloggers Challenge President on Standardized Testing
By TRIP GABRIEL
Does President Obama believe standardized testing has gone too far?
Mr. Obama criticized “high-stakes” tests last week at a town-hall-style meeting, contrasting them with less-pressured tests his daughters took in their Washington private school. Those remarks, which did not receive wide coverage at the time, have since prompted close followers of education policy to wonder whether the president opposes his own Education Department.
In the public forum, hosted by the Spanish broadcaster Univision on March 28, a high school student, Luis Zeyala, asked the president if there could be less testing in schools.
Mr. Obama agreed that “we have piled on a lot of standardized tests” under federal education law, meaning the annual proficiency tests in reading and math given to Grades 3 through 8 as well as once in high school.
“Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a base line of where kids are at,” he continued. “Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic.”
Mr. Obama went on to denounce how standardized tests had narrowed the curriculum and led to teaching to the test.
“Too often,” he said, “what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools.”
Anthony Cody, a teacher in Oakland, Calif., who writes a blog for Education Week, suggested that the president was disavowing the policies of his education secretary, Arne Duncan, which include expanding student testing to evaluate teachers and developing new tests to be given several times a year to measure student progress.
“All these changes RAISE the stakes on the tests, for teachers and for schools,” Mr. Cody wrote in a blog post, following an earlier post titled “If only the Department of Education could hear this guy Obama, boy, they would have to rethink their approach!”
Mr. Cody’s comments were picked up by a blogger for The Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, and quoted by another blogger, Deborah Meier, a senior scholar at New York University’s education school, who accused the president of doublespeak.
“In reality the government is paying people to invent more bubble tests,” Ms. Meier wrote.
Other bloggers on education pounced on the president’s remarks.
The blogs came to the attention of the Department of Education. A press officer, Justin Hamilton, wrote to Mr. Cody to request a correction. Mr. Cody instead sent four follow-up questions to Mr. Hamilton, who, over two days, sent lengthy responses that Mr. Cody published.
On Wednesday, Mr. Hamilton said in an interview that there was no daylight between Mr. Duncan and the president. The expansion of testing that the Education Department favors would actually reduce pressure on teachers, he said.
Instead of year-end tests that the federal government now uses to hold schools accountable, many students will soon be tested two or more times a year to measure their progress.
At the administration’s urging last year, several states enacted laws to evaluate teachers in part based on students’ growth on tests. That will require students to be given standardized tests more than once a year.
At the same time, teachers can use the results from these so-called formative assessments to respond to students’ needs.
“We’re reducing the reliance on high-stakes testing, saying you shouldn’t tie an entire evaluation to one test,” Mr. Hamilton said. “Some people may think a test is a test and there’s no distinction between a formative assessment and a summative assessment, but we disagree. We think we should be measuring student growth and learning, and this is information that parents and teachers want.”
Mr. Cody, who now works for his school district as a mentor to teachers, said he was not opposed to all standardized tests. But the best assessments, he said, are developed by individual teachers.
“The most powerful assessment is closely, organically linked to the classroom,” he said. “It’s not something the teacher should have to purchase.”
Mr. Cody has created an online petition asking the president to refocus his education policies “in line with the vision he shared on March 28.”