Federal Opinion

Dept. of Ed Responds Again: “Secretary Duncan Totally Concurs with President Obama”

By Anthony Cody — April 05, 2011 3 min read
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A week ago 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. Friday I posted his responses to my first three questions. Today, he has answered the fourth.

My question:
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.

Question #4: 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?

Mr. Hamilton’s response:

Secretary Duncan totally concurs with President Obama--and, contrary to the claim of your blog post, has said much the same thing about the limits of bubble-tests and avoiding teaching to the test.

In his September 2010 speech “Beyond the Bubble Tests,” Secretary Duncan said:

It is no secret that existing state assessments in mathematics and English often fail to capture the full spectrum of what students know and can do. Students, parents, and educators know there is more to a sound education that picking the right selection for a multiple choice question. State assessments currently tend to focus on concepts that are easy to measure. They rely mainly on multiple choice items with fill-in-the-bubble answers...Schools may give lots of tests--often too many--but the assessments aren't always testing important knowledge and skills in a comprehensive way or providing high-quality information about student progress....
One of the biggest frustrations of teachers with existing assessments is that they fail to test higher-order reasoning and writing skills, and thus fail to show what students know and can do. One-shot, year-end bubble tests administered on a single day, too often lead to a dummying down of curriculum and instruction throughout the course of the entire school year.... I've said repeatedly--though it sometimes goes unreported--that we should never, ever evaluate teacher and school performance based just on test scores, or use the results of a single test on a single day as the only measure of teacher performance.... Teachers absolutely deserve multiple observations against clear standards by trained observers and principals when they are evaluated.

Your question, moreover, conflates two issues as if they were one. The first issue is whether the Administration’s policies will “raise” the stakes placed on tests in school accountability. The second question is whether the Administration’s policies will increase the stakes placed on tests in teacher evaluation.

With respect to school accountability, the Administration’s Blueprint plainly diminishes the stakes placed on tests in schools. For starters, it allows States to factor in measures beyond test scores to differentiate schools. Unlike the case under current law, States will be required to identify just 15 percent of schools for interventions based on student assessment information--and at the high school level, States would use graduation rates as well. (In most cases, States and districts would determine what the right intervention is for a given school).

This subset of schools will have to show extremely low performance school-wide or with subgroups of students over several years. In distinction to NCLB, these schools would thus be identified based on trend data for many students over the course of several years. No longer would schools be held accountable based on the results of a single test on a single day, where one subgroup of students just missing the mark could lead to mislabeling a school and start it down the path of a series of one-size-fits-all interventions.

By contrast, the Administration’s policies would likely lead to an increase in the use of test scores--to repeat--as one factor, among many, in teacher evaluation. Yet programs like Race to the Top and the Blueprint would “raise the stakes” for test scores in teacher evaluation only because teacher evaluation today typically takes no account of test scores or a teacher’s impact on student learning. In other words, tests scores are currently not low-stake factors in teacher evaluation--they are no-stake factors. As Secretary Duncan has said, it does not make sense to exclude evidence of student growth in learning from teacher evaluation, anymore than it would make sense to base teacher evaluation solely on student achievement data.

Secretary Duncan disagrees with skeptics of standardized tests who contend that because state tests are flawed measures of learning, states and public schools should simply abandon standardized testing, or exclude it all together from teacher evaluation. But he does agree that the quality of state assessments needs to improve dramatically to better measure higher-order thinking skills and to make the results of assessments instructionally useful for teachers and principals.

That pressing need is why the U.S. Department of Education held a $350 million Race to the Top Assessment competition last year. Two consortia, covering 44 states, are now in the midst of developing the next generation of assessments--and they will move far beyond the bubble-tests now used in most public schools.

Justin Hamilton, Press Secretary to Arne Duncan

What do you think? Is the Department of Education moving us away from the high-stakes, pressure-packed environment President Obama criticized in his remarks? Or will their policies lead to even more pressure to teach to the test?

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.