School & District Management Opinion

Obama’s Policies Under Fire: Department of Ed Responds

By Anthony Cody — April 01, 2011 8 min read
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On Monday night I posted a blog pointing out that President Obama’s remarks at a town hall meeting seemed to undermine Department of Education policies. I received a request for a correction to my post from Justin Hamilton, Press Secretary to Secretary Duncan. He agreed to answer some questions for me, which I posted earlier today. Note that in my questions, I included President Obama’s remarks. Mr. Hamilton has removed those quotes in his reply.

From Justin Hamilton:
Before I answer your questions, I want to say that President Obama and Secretary Duncan believe that assessing student achievement and their progress is important information to track. They also believe that the quality of testing that happens in schools today needs to improve dramatically. I would encourage you to read Secretary Duncan’s speech “Beyond the Bubble Tests,” in which he explains what the Department is doing to support the development of a new generation of assessments that are useful to students, parents, and teachers and promote good instruction in the classroom. Here’s a link to the speech.

Here are the answers to your specific questions.

Question 1: 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?

Yes, it is possible that some districts and schools will opt to have tests in the fall and spring to measure student growth. To measure student growth, states, by definition, will need to track student achievement over two or more points in time. That does not mean that tests automatically will need to be done in the same school year. The Department’s Blueprint for reforming ESEA does not add any additional tests for purposes of federal accountability beyond those currently required under NCLB--English language arts and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and science, once at each schooling level.

Switching to measuring student growth--as opposed to using tests just to measure absolute levels of proficiency--may result in an increase in the frequency of tests. But that does not mean that students will face more high-stakes standardized tests. Secretary Duncan has taken the position that formative assessments are not high-stakes tests but are invaluable to good teaching because they help teachers identify the instructional needs of students and areas where their own practice can be strengthened.

In fact, as you note, President Obama’s comments about the formative assessments that Sasha and Malia take at Sidwell Friends School are entirely consistent with the notion that formative tests are not high-stakes tests and are instructionally useful.

It may be your position that, for counting purposes, a test is a test, and that the distinction between formative and summative assessments is meaningless. Or that the administration should not be pressing schools to do more to measure growth in student learning during the school year--and should not expect states to use formative tests as part of their efforts to do so. We disagree. We draw a distinction between high-stakes testing and formative assessments--and Secretary Duncan has said repeatedly that schools are doing too little to measure student growth during the school year and are too preoccupied with measuring student proficiency with one-shot high-stakes tests.

In the “Beyond the Bubble Tests” speech linked to above, Secretary Duncan, like President Obama, said that he believes schools give too many tests that aren’t assessing important knowledge and skills or providing high-quality information about student progress. Instead of fostering a classroom culture of continuous improvement, our current assessment system often leaves teachers and parents feeling frustrated and lacking information that could help them accelerate student learning.

The Department is supporting the development of the next generation of tests by two, large state consortia covering 44 states with $350 million from the Race to the Top fund. These tests will go beyond the bubble tests common in classrooms today. They will give parents and teachers information they need to know whether a student is on track for success in college and careers, not just measure against a state baseline for proficiency. They will assess students’ ability to read complex text, complete research projects, excel at classroom speaking and listening assignments, and work with digital media. They will provide a series of interim evaluations during the school year to measure whether students are on track. All of these assessments will be instructionally useful - unlike the one-shot, end-of-year standardized tests given as part of current accountability systems. Again, it may be your position that a test is a test, and it is not worthwhile to distinguish between fill-in-the-bubble tests and tests that measure critical thinking skills--or that it is impossible to develop a much better system of standardized assessments. Secretary Duncan is on the record disagreeing with those positions.

Question 1 (part 2): 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?

The Department will continue to require annual testing in reading and mathematics. Under the Blueprint, states will have the option to include the results from other subjects in their accountability system. They will not be required to add new subjects. The policy of allowing states to add new subjects stems from Secretary Duncan’s desire to be responsive to concerns that the current NCLB accountability system is narrowing the curriculum in some schools by producing an undue focus on English language arts and mathematics.

It’s important to note that President Obama and Secretary Duncan believe that many other factors should be included in the accountability system. Secretary Duncan has repeatedly said that multiple indicators must be used to assess school and teacher performance. Under the Blueprint, the administration proposed not only to broaden the accountability system to include measures of student growth in subjects other than English language arts and math, it also proposed a variety of measures of school performance at the high school level apart from standardized test scores, such as graduation rates, college enrollment rates, and the rate of college enrollment without the need for remediation. In addition, states and districts under the Blueprint would collect information about teaching and learning conditions, including information on school climate such as student, teacher and school leader attendance; disciplinary incidents; or student, parent, or school staff surveys about their school experience.

Question 2: 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 it was not shown to work in Chicago under then CEO Arne Duncan) why is it being continued for any schools at all?

The biggest problem with AYP is that it gives schools the same label, whether they’re missing their targets by a little or a lot. Under NCLB, chronically low-performing schools are already identified as being schools in need of reconstitution. However, NCLB provided almost no resources for improving schools that, by any measure, are chronically low-performing or have persistent achievement gaps. Interventions in these schools typically have involved little more than cosmetic change. By contrast, the administration has invested $4 billion to support the transformation of the lowest-achieving schools and required more meaningful interventions in schools with persistent achievement gaps.

It is not “punishing” a school that has does a poor job, year after year, and sometimes for decades, to support dramatic change in that school. Children get only one chance at an education. To fail to forcefully intervene in a school that cheats children out of the opportunity to receive a quality education punishes children. As Secretary Duncan has said, for far too long, adults, educators, and leaders have passively observed educational failure in these schools with a complacency that is deeply disturbing. States and districts have largely tinkered in chronically low-achieving schools--many of which serve low-income minority students--instead of treating them as educational emergencies. Secretary Duncan does not support maintaining the status quo in these schools or continued tinkering.

Question 3: 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?

Under the Blueprint and Race to the Top, states may use a variety of tests to measure student growth. These tests can be portfolios, observation of student work against a rubric aligned with state standards, or assessments designed by teachers according to state guidance. All of these assessments must be rigorous and comparable across classrooms.

Justin Hamilton, Press Secretary to Secretary Duncan

Note: Mr. Hamilton overlooked the fourth question I asked and is now working on a response. It is expected to arrive Monday.

Update: See Part One of my response here: Obama Knows Best: How Should we Assess Learning?

Update 2:
See Part Two of my response here: Obama Knows Best: “Too Often we are Using these Tests to Punish Students or Schools”

What do you think? Do you feel the Department of Education’s policies are aligned with President Obama’s remarks on Monday?

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.