Marc Tucker: The U.S. DOE’s “Mea Culpa” Did Not Go Far Enough

Oct 27, 2015 by

Marc Tucker is glad to see the U.S. Department of Education acknowledging that American students spend too much time being tested and preparing for tests. But, he writes, it didn’t go far enough to take responsibility for the multiplication of redundant tests.

He writes:

A new report from the Council of the Great City Schools has done what seemingly nothing or no one has yet been able to do: Convince the current administration that the rampant over-testing in U.S. schools is proving harmful for the quality of education that our students receive.

The report found that students take, on average, more than 112 standardized tests between pre-K and grade 12, with the average student taking about eight standardized tests per year. Some are intended to “fulfill federal requirements under No Child Left Behind, NCLB waivers, or Race to the Top (RTT), while many others originate at the state and local levels. Others were optional.”

Now the administration is signaling that they see the error of their and their predecessors’ ways. Calling for a two percent cap on the amount of classroom time that is spent on testing, and a host of other proposals, the administration’s mea culpa is an unexpected demonstration of what can occur when the facts are laid bare for all to see. How much is actually done to reverse the over-testing trend will be decided by the actions of incoming acting Secretary of Education John King.

The tone of flexibility in the Department’s announcement is new and welcome, as is its recognition that the Department may share some culpability in the national revolt against testing. Its call for fewer and higher quality assessments is on target, as is its willingness to help the states come up with more sensible approaches.

What I don’t see in the administration’s proposals is understanding that the vast proliferation of indiscriminate testing with cheap, low quality tests is the direct result of federal education policies beginning with No Child Left Behind and continuing with Race to the Top and the current waiver regime. I offer you one phrase in the Department’s announcement in evidence of this proposition: “The Department will work with states that wish to amend their ESEA flexibility waiver plans to reduce testing…while still maintaining teacher and leader evaluation and support systems that include growth in student learning.”

But it is precisely the federal government’s insistence on requiring testing regimes that facilitate teacher and leader evaluations that include student growth metrics that caused all this over-testing in the first place.

Outstanding principals I’ve talked with tell me that when tough-minded, test-based accountability came into vogue, they created or found good interventions that came with their own assessments, each keyed to the intervention they were using. They had always done that. But their district superintendents, also fearful for their jobs under the new regime, mandated other interventions, with their own tests. Then the state piled on with their own mandated programs and tests, all driven by the fear of leaders, at each level, that if student performance did not improve at the required rate, their own jobs were on the line. Few of these interventions were aligned with the new standards or with each other. But time was of the essence. Better a non-aligned instructional program than none at all. Better a cheap test of basic skills they could afford than a much more expensive one they could not afford.

What sent the numbers right over the cliff was pacing. School administrators, focused on having their students score well on the basic skills tests used by the state accountability systems, pushed schools enrolling large numbers of disadvantaged students to figure out where the students needed to be at set intervals during the year. This determined the pace of instruction. It also made it much easier for administrators to get control over the instruction. All that remained was to administer a test at each of those intervals—say every month or couple of months—to see whether the teachers were keeping pace with the scripted curriculum and the students were making enough progress to do well at the end of the semester or year….

The key for great school leaders isn’t formal evaluation and it isn’t firing people. Only Donald Trump, evidently, fired his way to the top. The key is running a great school that great people want to work in, and then spending a lot of time identifying, recruiting and supporting those great people. Principals who work this way often let their staff know that they expect them to work hard. Those who do not want to work so hard go elsewhere. But these principals do not depend on test-based accountability systems to identify the slackers nor do they depend on test-based accountability systems to identify the teachers they want to hire or to develop them once they are hired.. Why should they? They are in classrooms all the time, talking and observing, coaching and supporting.

The data reported by the Council of the Great City Schools reveal a calamity. The cause is our national accountability system. The flexibility offered by the Department of Education is welcome and refreshing, but it is not the answer. The answer will have to wait for the day when the federal government no longer insists that the states and schools use test-based accountability and value-added strategies to assess individual teachers with consequences for individual teachers. John King did not create this system. Perhaps he can help this country change it. We’ll see.

Source: Marc Tucker: The U.S. DOE’s “Mea Culpa” Did Not Go Far Enough | Diane Ravitch’s blog

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