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Duncan Talks High Stakes Tests, ESEA Renewal, and Common Core Politics

By Andrew Ujifusa — March 17, 2014 4 min read
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Crossposted from State EdWatch.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told a gathering of state education chiefs Monday that while overtesting is taking place in some districts and states, officials should not lean too far the other way and back away from assessments because of political pressure or practical difficulties.

New assessments to measure schools’ progress in teaching the Common Core State Standards were a big topic of discussion here during the annual policy conference of the Council of Chief State School Officers, one of the two groups (along with the National Governors Association) to oversee development of the common core.

In a morning speech during the second day of the event, Duncan urged state officials to be patient and to “overcommunicate” with the public during the transition to the new standards and new tests, particularly during the field-testing of common-core assessments taking place this spring. At the same time, he cautioned that some pushback on policies had little to do with education, but “everything to do with politics,” and that not all critics could be won over.

Ultimately, states need to strike the right policies to make sure that test scores are useful without distorting schools’ work, he argued. “There is a common-sense middle,” he said.

Repeating a theme he used last week at a National Association of State Boards of Education conference across the Potomac River, Duncan also told the chiefs that if field-testing goes smoothly, “We are lying to ourselves. That is impossible.” (Field-testing for Smarter Balanced assessments has already been pushed back by one week.)

Although the secretary met with the state chiefs behind closed doors on Monday before his public discussion at the CCSSO gathering, he was challenged during the public discussion by Vermont Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe about the use of those test scores. In a back and forth with Duncan, Holcombe argued that neither Duncan nor the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (one of two consortia developing common-core aligned tests, of which Vermont is a member) would give her a clear answer as to the appropriate uses for the scores from common-core tests. The tricky and very broad question Holcombe was driving at is this: Should states use these test scores for “high-stakes” purposes like evaluating teachers?

In Vermont, which has a high teacher-turnover rate, Holcombe said using the scores for high-stakes purposes could further destabilize a fragile teacher workforce. She also questioned the research base for using tests to make decisions about teachers. When Duncan said that Smarter Balanced should be providing state chiefs with the most appropriate use of these test scores, Holcombe replied that when she put the question to Smarter Balanced, she was directed to Duncan.

And although Duncan told her that states’ priority should be to use test-score data to identify top-performing teachers and not punish low-performing educators, “That’s actually not been the intent of federal policy,” Holcombe said in a subsequent interview. (Through Race to the Top and other policies, the federal department has made it clear it wants states to factor in student performance on assessments when crafting teacher evaluations.)

Kentucky Education Commissioner Terry Holliday also voiced concerns to Duncan that states not using common-core tests from Smarter Balanced or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers could face an uneven playing field when testing results are compared. The secretary responded that the federal department’s goal is to create a equal playing field regardless of which tests are used, while simultaneously providing useful information for teachers and others.

“We have lots of places that teach to the test too much,” he said.

In a theme he also stressed at last week’s state school boards’ meeting, Duncan pressed the chiefs to constantly communicate with parents, teachers, schools, and the general public about what the changes in standards and testing would mean and why they were crucial to schools’ success. That didn’t necessarily involve reacting to every bit of “misinformation” about the standards (a reference to common-core pushback), Duncan said, but instead constantly providing accurate information. That means, for example, making it clear that no state is staking its entire accountability system on testing, Duncan said.

One other Washington-centric note: As at many meetings, Duncan was asked by CCSSO Executive Director Chris Minnich about the odds of Congress reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Safe to say that there’s been virtually no progress on that front in recent years. However, the secretary said that a successful ESEA reauthorization push would likely come from outside Washington. To that end, he said he believes the spate of activity to expand access to early education in many states could create the right atmosphere in the future for more bipartisan work in Congress to push changes to federal education law.

Duncan also took the opportunity to praise Republican governors working on early-education access, in contrast to their GOP congressional counterparts.

If there’s any chance at major bipartisan policy work, he said, “I can’t think of a better place than around education.”

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