School & District Management Opinion

Just Who is Misinterpreting President Obama on Education Policy?

By Anthony Cody — April 01, 2011 3 min read
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The four questions the Department of Education promises to answer soon (here are answers to the first three)

On Monday I wrote a post contrasting President Obama’s insightful thoughts about standardized tests to policies that are being pursued by his own Department of Education. Justin Hamilton, a press operative for the Department of Education believes I have misinterpreted President Obama’s remarks, and on Wednesday he sent me an email requesting that I correct my post.

He offered me the following “clarifications":

While President Obama and Secretary Duncan are open to how we can best assess student progress in subject areas like history and science, they believe annual measures in reading and math are needed to assess progress toward college and career-readiness.
More must be done to improve the quality of those assessments, so that they're a more meaningful measure of student learning. That's why we've invested $350 million through Race to the Top to help states develop the next generation of assessments and help us move beyond bubble tests.

I find it remarkable that President Obama needs someone in the Department of Education press office to provide an officially sanctioned interpretation of his remarks.
And I am afraid I was still confused. So I asked Mr. Hamilton if he would be willing to respond to some questions from me to see if we could get some clarity. After several requests, he reluctantly replied “send them over.”

They were sent Wednesday night. Yesterday I wrote and asked when I could expect answers, and they wrote back “We’re close to having answers for you. Could you hold off until tomorrow?” I replied, sure, “by noon tomorrow?” Reply: “I think we can do noon.”

It is now past noon in Washington, DC, and I am still waiting for answers.
[note: I am told they are working on it and should have answers soon!] When they arrive, I will post them immediately. But meanwhile, perhaps with the help of my readers we can sort this mess out. Mr. Hamilton thinks I am misinterpreting President Obama and there are no inconsistencies between his statements and Department of Education policies. My questions attempt to clarify this.

Question 1: The original question from the student expressed the view that students have too many tests. President Obama replied:

“we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids,” and suggested perhaps we might move to a system that tests less frequently.

Isn’t the Department of Education proposing a significant expansion in the frequency of tests, in order to capture growth? Is it not possible we will have tests in the fall and spring both for this purpose? And isn’t the Department also proposing to greatly increase the subjects that are tested, beyond reading and math? Won’t this have the effect of increasing, rather than decreasing, the number and frequency of tests?

Question 2: President Obama said:

Too often what we've been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we've said is let's find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let's apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let's figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let's make sure that that's not the only way we're judging whether a school is doing well.

The Department of Education’s Blueprint for a new NCLB calls for the continuation of the practice of labeling schools as failures, although it will impose this crushing status on only the bottom 5% of our schools. If punishing schools has not worked - as the President acknowledges in this remark, (and was not shown to work in Chicago under then CEO Arne Duncan) why is it being continued for any schools at all?

Question 3: President Obama also said this:

Because there are other criteria: What's the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

As a proponent of project-based learning, I am happy to hear the president acknowledge that this form of learning is not measured by current forms of assessment. Will project based learning be included in the assessments used for accountability purposes? If so, how will this be done?

Question 4: President Obama also said:

So what I want to do is--one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you're not learning about the world; you're not learning about different cultures, you're not learning about science, you're not learning about math. All you're learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that's not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they're interested in. They're not going to do as well if it's boring.
Many of the core elements of Race to the Top and the Blueprint are related to test scores. Department of Ed policy calls for the linking of teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores. The Blueprint calls for tracking of student test scores of teachers according to the place they were prepared. We still have the threat of reconstitution hanging over the bottom tier of schools, attended exclusively by children in poverty. All based on test scores. The President described the tests that Sasha and Malia took as “low stakes.” All these changes RAISE the stakes on the tests, for teachers and schools. How does this move us towards the “less pressure-packed environment” the President is advocating?

UPDATE: 12:50 pm: Message in from Dept of Ed: “We are giving your questions serious consideration and will provide extended answers. We will have them to you soon.” I will post as soon as they arrive.

UPDATE: 6:15 pm: Answers to the first three questions have arrived. They missed the fourth question and are working on it now.

What do you think? Who has been misinterpreting President Obama? Me - or the Department of Education?

The opinions expressed in Living in Dialogue are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.