To Test Annually or Not, Mr. President? That Is the Question

By Catherine Gewertz — March 30, 2011 2 min read
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Have you heard? President Barack Obama thinks we should test students less often. Maybe not even annually. He shared this and other thoughts on testing at a town hall meeting here in Washington earlier this week. His comments were reported by the Associated Press, and zinged around the globe accordingly.

Our own Politics K-12 bloggers wondered whether these thoughts squared entirely with what Obama’s own education department has been saying, so Alyson Klein asked the department for a clarification. Oh no, came the response, annual testing is very much a part of the administration’s vision.

Others in the blogosphere picked up on the possible disconnect in the messaging, too. blogger Anthony Cody opined that Obama was blasting his own education policies.

The president’s comments surely rippled through the assessment consortia. Remember them? They’re the two big groups of states that have $360 million in federal Race to the Top money to design testing systems for the new common standards. Whether their visions will result in more testing is something that intelligent people can certainly argue about, and some of that argument will revolve around whether you think one summative test—strung out in several parts and types during the year—constitutes “more” testing. But they are certainly going to feature annual tests. (Refresher: check here for graphic and Power Point descriptions of the consortia’s plans.)

On the other hand, both consortia intend to address something the president complained about: tests that require students to “fill out a little bubble.” They will indeed have computer-based, quick-turnaround tests as part of their systems, but both also envision performance tasks that require students to engage in more extended activities.

The consortia are closely monitoring the assessment dialogue on Capitol Hill as ESEA reauthorization nears, because they have to adapt to whatever Congress requires for federal accountability. You might recall that the question marks over that process led the federal government to award the consortia money not as a grant, but under a “cooperative agreement,” which allows for shifts in plans as needed. (Check the last three paragraphs of this story.) This is, I’m guessing, sort of like trying to build a house on a tight deadline and being told, possibly several times during the process, that you need to revamp your blueprints, tossing out the second floor in favor of a rambling ranch design, adding a guesthouse, or completely reworking the plumbing.

How and when the accountability-and-testing policy takes shape with ESEA will have a huge impact on the consortia, which have to put out RFPs for test design as all of this is unfolding. Tricky questions, tricky policy, tricky timing. Stay tuned.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.