Federal Opinion

What I Told President Obama About Testing

By Farida Mama — November 10, 2015 3 min read
President Barack Obama, right, reacts to remarks by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, center, in the State Dining Room of the White House. John King Jr., left, will oversee the Education Department when Duncan resigns at the end of 2015.
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On October 24, President Obama posed this question to millions of Americans on Facebook: “If our kids had more free time at school, what would you want them to do with it?” The answer seemed obvious to me. As a fifth-year middle school teacher, I would want my students to explore their curiosity as voracious readers, inquisitive scientists, flexible mathematicians, and culturally competent change agents. I would help my students think critically about the life that they want to live, and about making their world a better place.

I could not have imagined that just two days later, I would be sharing these ideas directly with the President. But on October 26, I was able to do just that during a meeting in the Oval Office with President Obama, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and acting Deputy Secretary of Education John King. Bootsie Battle-Holt, a middle school mathematics teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellow from Los Angeles, was the only other teacher in the room.

As I waited to go into the Oval Office, I asked myself: “What would my students say if they were sitting here with me now?” The answers to this question informed my conversation with the President during our 50-minute meeting.

The President commenced the meeting by articulating his views on testing. He asserted that tests should be “high quality,” “worth taking,” and “one of multiple measures,” used to provide information about teaching and learning. As I listened to the President speak, it was very clear to me that he cares deeply about the teaching and learning that happen in all schools across the country. President Obama also clarified that placing a limit on testing does not mean throwing testing out altogether, and that “assessments are tools for learning and promoting equity.”

What Is a ‘Good Test’

As a teacher in an urban, Title I school, I wholeheartedly agree with President Obama’s message. In order to ensure that great teaching and learning is happening in all schools and all ZIP codes, it is essential that accountability measures remain in place. Take my school in Boston, for example. Three years ago, UP Academy Dorchester, then John Marshall Elementary School, was a chronically under-performing school that was subsequently placed in turnaround status. State assessment data clearly indicated that something had to be done—and urgently—to improve the learning environment. Just one year after UP Education Network partnered with the Boston district to restart the school, test data showed that our school had achieved the highest math and English-language arts point gains in the history of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). This was a change that our students deserved. It was a change that put our students on a different life path.

I also strongly agree that the tests we give must be worth taking. What is a ‘good’ test? A ‘good’ assessment provides teachers with information that equips them and their students and families with feedback about what each student has learned and where they need additional support. Something that struck me about President Obama’s comments was the way he spoke about his own daughters’ education. It was clear that, as a father, the President feels that the assessments his daughters have taken in school are not the destination, but rather the road signs that helped shape the journey.

I know that as a teacher, I have not always administered ‘good’ tests. One year, our district mandated that students take benchmark assessments that all too often mirrored the quizzes and tests that they took over the course of the school year. The minutes spent taking redundant benchmark assessments was the time that my students could have used quenching their thirst for more knowledge. We need to do better so that tests do not waste students’ and teachers’ time and instead enhance the time in the classroom.

I became a teacher because I believe that it is through education that one can change the world. I didn’t become a teacher to refine my test-administration skills, and I don’t believe that bubble sheets and short-answer questions are the only way to assess the knowledge of the brilliant mathematicians, readers, and writers who learn in my classroom. We should not use assessments as the ceiling of our students’ learning, but rather as stepping-stones to help our students become their very best. After meeting with the President, I feel a great sense of hope and optimism that with the support of the federal government, students and teachers across the country will start to feel a palpable difference in the nature of testing. The more attention is given to the time that our students spend on assessments, the more time will teachers have to teach and inspire.

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