Federal Opinion

The Department of Education Cannot Unring the Bell Obama Struck

By Anthony Cody — April 05, 2011 4 min read
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Last Monday, President Obama went off script at a town hall meeting, and in response to a question from student Luis Zelaya, offered us a vision for education. In 338 words, he made it clear that current Department of Education policy is way out of line with what he knows is best for his own daughters, and for students across the nation.

After I expressed this view in my blog Monday night, Justin Hamilton, a press secretary for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, wrote to me and I then sent him four questions. On Friday he answered three of them, and today answered the fourth. in this post I offer my thoughts on his response to my last question.

To start with, I want to thank Justin Hamilton for responding to my questions. I know they have a lot on their hands, and I appreciate him taking the time to do this.

My final question was inspired by this statement from President Obama:

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.

This is a very rich statement. The President touches on the human cost of our obsession with testing. He describes a phenomenon that has become rampant in many of our schools - especially the ones under the greatest pressure to increase test scores, lest they suffer from the “forceful interventions” mandated by Department of Ed policies.

President Obama seems to understand that when schools focus on tests, learning loses meaning for students. They no longer are learning about things that matter to them, and they become bored and alienated. I have seen this in classrooms in Oakland. Many of my own students arrived to my 6th grade science class never having had the chance to do hands-on experiments in elementary school, because all available instructional time was devoted to reading and math.

My last question to Mr. Hamilton was this:

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?

In his response, Mr. Hamilton acknowledges the expansion of tests under way. But he makes the point that these are only to be “a part” of teacher evaluation, or of school-wide accountability indicators. Since they are only one part, somehow this makes the pressure evaporate into thin air! This is like telling the contestants at a beauty contest, “it really doesn’t matter what you look like. Your appearance only counts for 50% of your score.”

Mr. Hamilton tells us “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.”

Just 15%! As was discussed in my response Sunday, these will be schools attended exclusively by children living in poverty. These students will continue to feel the harshest pressure to perform on tests, and their curriculum will continue to be focused on test outcomes rather than the authentic learning the President points out is so valuable.

Mr. Hamilton then suggests:

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.

I do not get this as a response. If President Obama has asserted that tests ought to be low stakes, and occur in a less pressure-packed environment, how does this policy “concur”? Secretary Duncan obviously believes this, and has the policies that are making it happen in states across the nation, but please, do not tell me black is white. These two things do not match!

One last point to emphasize.
The Department of Education is preparing the biggest expansion of testing ever attempted in the history of the world. For every problem that was raised with No Child Left Behind, the answer is another test.

Problem: We have narrowed the curriculum to focus only on reading and math
Solution: Test ALL subjects, at huge expense

The tests only measure a narrow range of knowledge and understanding
Solution: Invest billions in computer systems so students can take fancier tests that can be scored by things like the Pearson Intelligent Essay Assessor

Problem: We need to improve feedback and evaluation for teachers
Solution: Evaluate them based on test scores

We do not want to judge schools, teachers or students based on a single test score.
Solution: Mandate quarterly, monthly, weekly tests, and call them “formative”

All of these “solutions” create more problems than they solve. You cannot make teacher pay and evaluations depend in large part on student test scores, and then blithely pretend this will not cause them to teach to the test because other factors are also considered. Our students need rich projects related to their lives, not endless focus on test preparation. And our students in poverty need relief from test pressure most of all. The tragedy of current education reform is that in the name of equity and justice, poor and minority students are being tested to educational death.

What President Obama said last Monday resonated across the land like a mighty Liberty bell of truth about testing. Hard as they try, the Department of Education just cannot unring that bell.

Over at Save Our Schools we have launched a petition drive to invite President Obama to endorse our guiding principles, and if he does so, to speak at our rally on July 30th in Washington, DC.

UPDATE: If you would like see what is in the works and give feedback to the Next Generation of Assessments being developed by Pearson, one of the largest test publishers around, you can join this Wiki.

What do you think? Are Secretary Duncan’s policies likely to cause more teaching 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.