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White House Is Root of Test-Reduction Rhetoric, Sources Say

By Alyson Klein — October 27, 2014 3 min read
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President Barack Obama appears to be behind his administration’s recent rhetorical push on the need to reconsider the number of tests students take, sources say. And the president’s new thinking on tests would seem to put U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in a pretty awkward position.

For the first six years of his term in office, Duncan has bet big on student scores on state tests, pressing states to use them in pivotal decisions, such as teacher evaluations. That started to crumble with this blog post in August, in which he wrote, among other things, that “testing and test preparation takes up too much time.” (More on Duncan’s waffly rhetoric on testing in this very smart Curriculum Matters post.)

And earlier this month, when the Council of Chief State School Officers and the Council of the Great City Schools said they wanted to take a hard look at the number of tests states and districts require and consider paring it back, Duncan cheered. He also posted this op-ed on the subject.

So what caused the secretary to (sort of) change his testing tune?

Maybe he didn’t. Or at least he wasn’t the first. The administration’s recent test-reduction rhetoric doesn’t seem to have originated with Duncan at all, or even with the Education Department. Instead, it appears to have come from President Barack Obama, who took the unusual step of putting out his own statement patting CCSSO and CGCS on the back for their plan to reconsider testing regimes.

But when did Obama start to question testing, or at least the frequency of assessments? After all, his signature K-12 program, Race to the Top, rewarded states for tying teacher evaluation to tests—and even went after states like California for having laws on the books that prohibit linking teacher data to student outcomes.

There are at least a couple of possible explanations for the big turnaround:

  • It’s about politics. Teachers’ unions, which are playing a huge role in providing both money and volunteers for Democrats in a midterm election that’s likely to tilt toward Republicans, have never been super thrilled about tying teacher evaluation to student test scores. The NEA called for Duncan to resign earlier this year, and the AFT put him on an “improvement plan.” That might have caused some heartache and soul-searching at the White House. Both unions backed bills earlier this year that would drastically limit the number of tests.
  • It’s about saving the common core. Every few months, it seems, a new state announces that it’s reviewing the standards, and a few states have ditched them entirely. The standards’ political problem is rooted, in part, in the perception that they came from the feds. But teachers also are not so thrilled about having their evaluations tied to common-core tests. So if you limit the tests to just the very best ones, and ones that are linked to the standards, you save the common core, supporters of the standards (including the president and his team) may be thinking.
  • It’s about a genuine change of heart on the president’s part. It’s not like criticism of standardized testing is a new thing—in fact, the critique is even older than the No Child Left Behind Act. But maybe folks who are skeptical of the tests, or at least their sheer number, brought Obama around to their way of thinking. Having lunch with teachers earlier this year, the president asked them point-blank if there’s too much testing, and at least a couple of them told him that some assessments don’t provide teachers with much real information.

Any other ideas?

Another interesting point to consider: The first district to ask for a delay in common-core-aligned assessments just happens to serve the president’s and the secretary’s hometown of Chicago. After all this rhetoric, can Duncan and Obama say no to their own city?

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