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U.S. Ed. Sec. Duncan: Too Much Testing Costs Teachers and Students ‘Precious Time’

By Catherine Gewertz — August 21, 2014 2 min read
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What was intriguing about U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s announcement Thursday was what he didn’t announce.

You’ve probably heard by now that Duncan will allow nearly every state to take an additional year before having to include student test scores in teacher evaluations. (If you missed that announcement, our Lauren Camera has the details on our Politics K-12 blog.)

But if you look at Duncan’s prepared remarks for that announcement (below), you’ll see that they are hardly confined to incorporating student achievement in teacher and principal evaluations. The text is shot through with talk about the burden of testing on districts, schools, and students. He talks about teachers’ widespread complaints that tests “focus too much on basic skills,” and that giving tests, and preparing for them, consumes too much time.

”... in many places, the sheer quantity of testing—and test prep—has become an issue,” he says. “In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.”

Duncan proclaimed that the department “wants to be part of the solution” to the problems of bad tests and over-testing (and, of course, the problem that his announcement was aimed at solving: using test scores in evaluations while teachers are transitioning to new tests and standards).

What does the department propose to do? On the issue of bad tests, Duncan reminds us about the department’s $360 million investment in getting two groups of states, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, to design new, presumably better assessments.

But he doesn’t say anything about how the department can be “part of the solution” to the problem of too much testing. He indicates that more types of flexibility are in the offing: “We will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well.” But no details.

In reacting to Duncan’s speech, advocacy groups picked up the burden-of-testing theme and ran with it.

Michael D. Casserly, the executive director of the Council of the Great City Schools, which represents the biggest districts in the country, said in a statement that he supports the additional year’s time for states to incorporate student test scores in teacher evaluations. And he added that the council has “collected an unprecedented volume of data on the assessment practices of the nation’s big-city school systems to help intelligently inform issues of testing, its purposes and uses, and how these practices can be improved as we move forward.”

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten scolded the department, saying it had “made an overreliance on testing the centerpiece of its education policy” and congratulated Duncan on his “admission today that testing has gone too far.” It only matters, though, “if there is a real course-correction that is linked to concrete action and not just words,” Weingarten said in her statement.

She reiterated her call for accountability systems that replace tests and punishments with support. And she called for a waiver program that would allow states to escape the current requirement, enshrined in current federal law, of annual testing for all children.

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