Federal Opinion

Pineapplegate Raises Fresh Questions about the Obama Administration’s Expansion of Testing

By Anthony Cody — April 23, 2012 3 min read
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The recent debacle in New York over an absurd story about a pineapple racing a hare has renewed doubts about the degree to which we have come to rely on test scores for very high stakes decisions. Although it is clear we are not getting high quality information from these tests, their importance has been systematically expanding in recent years.

Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tells us his policies are moving us away from reliance on these tests. Jon Stewart did his best to get some straight answers from Secretary Duncan in this interview on Feb. 16 of this year.

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Stewart said:

A lot of the rhetoric about Race to the Top is about creativity and innovation, but what I hear from the teachers is that there is an infrastructure that has been created that is actually more confining, that is causing the schools to teach to the tests that they must have to qualify for grant money, It tends to frustrate (teachers) rather than free them to be the creative, powerful innovative teachers you are looking for.

Duncan replied,

I actually agree with that, and the President addressed it directly in the State of the Union. He said "We have to stop teaching to the test." I lived on the other side of the law in Chicago for 7 years, And it's the biggest complaint I hear as I travel the country, the narrowing of the curriculum that happened under No Child Left Behind. Yes, reading and math are fundamental, they're foundational. But science, social studies, dance, drama, art, music, foreign languages, P.E., all those things are really important as well. So what we're doing with this flexibility is states are moving away from NCLB is saying all these things are important. Yes, we need reading and math, but we have to broaden the curriculum, a well rounded world-class curriculum for every single child.

Stewart tried again:

But are we not still broadening the curriculum, it's like saying "you don't like the narrowness of the tests in these two subjects, what if we give you a lazy susan of tests for a lot of subjects?"

Duncan responded:

I don't think it's that at all. You know, tests tell you some things, they don't tell you lots of other things. We have to stop focusing on absolute test scores -- we have to look at growth and gain, how much are students improving. But I am much more interested in longer term outcomes; are graduation rates going up, are dropout rates going down? Are more students going to college? Are they persevering in college? We have to educate our way to a better economy.

So how is it that with both our President and Secretary of Education so firmly against teaching to the test that we have states dramatically increasing the stakes for these tests?
New York has a new law that will compel principals to base 40% of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores - and if her test scores rate her ineffective, she must be rated ineffective overall, so they are even more consequential. In Florida, test scores are now 50% of a teacher’s evaluation. More than half of the states have acted in a similar fashion. Given Secretary Duncan’s clear opposition to teaching to the tests, can we expect the Department of Education to oppose these practices? Sadly, no. In fact, this new and expanded use of test data was required by the Department of Education before states could be granted waivers to NCLB.

I did a bit of digging and found the instructions the Department of Education has provided to states to help them prepare their applications for waivers to NCLB. Here is some of what that document says:

On teacher and principal evaluation:

a. Use multiple valid measures in determining performance levels, including as a significant factor data on student growth for all students (including English Learners and students with disabilities), and other measures of professional practice (which may be gathered through multiple formats and sources, such as observations based on rigorous teacher performance standards, teacher portfolios, and student and parent surveys)? (emphasis added)

It also says that the proposal should:

b. Meaningfully differentiate performance using at least three performance levels?

Does the SEA [state education agency] incorporate student growth into its performance-level definitions with sufficient weighting to ensure that performance levels will differentiate among teachers and principals who have made significantly different contributions to student growth or closing achievement gaps?

So the reason we are seeing these evaluation systems appear in states across the country, that base as much as 50% of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores, and label teachers “ineffective” if they have low scores, is because the Department of Education has demanded this as a condition of NCLB waivers.
And just a reminder. In the absence of this waiver, states will continue to be afflicted by the harsh consequences of NCLB, a law Secretary Duncan has declared “a trainwreck,” which will condemn upwards of 80% of the nation’s schools as failures in the coming year, and withdraw funds from schools that fail to show improvement.

When I have raised this concern in the past, Department of Education officials have insisted that they are all for “multiple measures,” rather than simply test scores. However, states are interpreting the phrase “including as a significant factor data on student growth” to mean test scores, and the waiver proposals they have been approving are, in point of fact, using plain old standardized test scores for these purposes. If the Department of Education was against this practice, they had the perfect chance to prove it when they received Florida’s NCLB waiver application which based 50% of a teacher’s evaluation on test scores. But no, it was approved.

We must look at the actual practices the Department of Education is mandating and rewarding. And these practices are significantly increasing the pressure to teach to the test.

Pineapples do not have sleeves, and President Obama’s policies are doing the opposite of what he has claimed he wants. Secretary Duncan has a huge credibility problem. You can see the confusion on Jon Stewart’s face as he hears Duncan pretend to agree with him. As Judge Judy famously said, “Don’t pee on my leg and tell me it’s raining.” The biggest insult to the intelligence of America’s teachers, parents and students is to tell us you are against teaching to the test, when in fact, you are increasing pressure to do so. I don’t know about you, but I find this maddening.

What do you think? Is our intelligence being insulted by this administration? What will it take to get policies that align with the rhetoric?

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.