AERA: Duncan Faces Critics on Student Testing

By Sarah D. Sparks — April 30, 2013 2 min read
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San Francisco

Education Secretary Arne Duncan climbed up on the elephant in the room pretty much as soon as he started his invited address at the American Educational Research Association meeting here.

In a packed room with participants holding signs and circulating anti-testing protest fliers, he started off cautiously: “We can all generally agree standardized test don’t have a good rep today, and much of that criticism is merited.”

For example, he said, standardized tests generally have simplistic questions, aligned to standards to varying degrees, and teachers get results months too late for them to help improve education. He criticized schools that “obsess” about tests, adding, “It’s heartbreaking to hear children identify themselves as ‘below basic,’ or a ‘one.’”

However, Duncan also castigated those who said the recent cheating scandals in Atlanta and Washington are reasons to chuck high-stakes tests. “That argument confuses correlation with causation, and it ignores history,” Duncan said, adding, “I reject the idea that [accountability-based testing] forces people to cheat.”

What’s the answer to the problems in the testing system? Better tests, and tests used for different tasks apparently. The Secretary pointed to studies that have shown frequent, low-stakes test can help students recall information. Duncan argued that high-achieving countries such as Singapore have more-complex tests than American schools do, and their test preparation is “not so much time out from learning, but part of the learning process itself. High performing countries tend to have assessments that are worth learning to.”

Eva Baker, education research professor at the University of California Los Angeles asked Duncan how he would know when the consortia tests were ready for prime time, and whether he would suspend accountability requirements if they were not up to snuff. He declined, noting that states would be the ones to decide when the common core tests are ready and how to gauge school accountability in the meantime.

Arnold Dodge, (shown in the photo) an assistant education professor at C.W. Post campus of Long Island University who was part of the protest groups and invited to ask a question, snapped a follow-up to Baker: He argued that Race to the Top is “NCLB on steroids” and its test-based accountability “is destroying the joy, the spontaneity” of teaching and learning. He asked Duncan if he would commit to putting a moratorium on test-based accountability until new standards and tests were in place.

“We’re trying a lot of things, but, a moratorium to what, for what? We’re talking to a lot of people ... but that’s the best I can tell you right now.”

Photos taken by Elizabeth Rich.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.