So here’s the thing: you have to say something good about a step in the right direction. Recently, President Obama and Secretary Duncan called for limits on standardized testing in schools. Specifically, they said that no more than two percent of a student’s classroom time should be devoted to taking tests.
Now, I’m all for reducing the amount of standardized tests for our students. I’ve been saying it for literally years. Our students and educators across America have been saying it for years. I’m glad they are finally listening! But capping the amount of classroom time spent on standardized tests only deals with a symptom of the problem. There is a larger obstacle to creating opportunity for all students. So reducing the amount of testing is just a start. It’s good, but it is not good enough. We must do more for our students.
So now that they are finally listening to what we have been saying, educators call on President Obama and the Department of Education to do more—to do better—to listen to the educators who work with our students every day. They are the real experts. If anyone is reading this at the Department of Education, grab a chair, this may take a while.
I’d like to give you an “A” for effort, but frankly, ensuring that our students lose less classroom time is only part of the solution. You’re in the car, you’re buckled up, but you’ve got no gas. To get down that road, you have to acknowledge that test scores cannot be the sole measure of education. It’s not enough to say we’ll spend less time administering and preparing for tests if we still use the tests to label and punish students and schools—especially when the punishment comes in the form of taking away the resources those very same students and schools need to succeed.
I’m the last one to tell you that I am against tests. Heck, teachers invented tests. But we invented them to inform how we teach. We use them to understand what and how our students are learning; we use them to find out which students need additional help. We use them to ask ourselves, “Did the lesson sink in or do I need to revisit a section with my students?”
We never intended to use tests to decide which schools’ resources to cut. To the contrary, it was more of an indicator for educators to know which students needed more help—more one-on-one attention in a particular topic or concept. The question we were asking was, “Who needs more?” not “Who gets punished?” The new ESEA should reflect this approach: how do we use data to drive the right support to each and every child in our classrooms?
The Administration should play a critical role in ending the high-stakes use of test scores for one glaringly obvious reason: they harm students.
We hope the administration will continue to listen to education professionals and respect our expertise. Only then can we create the kind of schools that inspire the natural curiosity, creativity, and critical thinking skills that promote success for every child, regardless of their zip code.
And here’s how.
1) We must evaluate our schools based on how well they are doing for all students. As I said in a letter to Secretary Duncan last winter, “We need a new generation accountability system that includes an ‘opportunity dashboard’—indicators of school quality that support learning.” Instead of judging schools on a test score alone, let’s evaluate them on whether they are providing the important resources our students need in order to learn, grow, and be successful. Shouldn’t we evaluate our schools based on whether they are supporting kids and providing all the good things we know schools should be doing for students? Like providing advanced classes, ensuring that all of teachers are fully qualified, providing early childhood education, providing arts and sports and community support services like healthcare and nutrition. Test scores can be part of the mix, but test scores alone can never give us the whole picture of a school’s quality.
2) Let’s consider the radical idea of asking the educators in the classroom to collaboratively develop assessments that make sense. That’s what they’re doing in the New York Performance Standards Consortium. Their theory of success goes like this: Student progress is best achieved when we empower trusted professionals who know their students to make collaborative decisions on instruction, performance expectations, and assessment standards. Schools in the Consortium empower the professional classroom teachers in a network of schools to develop curriculum and instruction, design the tests, and decide how assessment data will be used to personalize education for each student. There’s plenty of testing, but it’s testing developed by teachers and used to drive instruction based on students’ interests. It’s powerful. It’s working by all measures. It’s giving parents real-time information about how their children are progressing. It provides students with a vested reason to engage in their learning. And no testing company makes a dime from it.
Now, we need Congress to take the next step. We call on all members of Congress and policymakers to seize this opportunity to end toxic testing and re-focus their attention on providing opportunity for all students. Members of Congress know that No Child Left Behind is defunct. Any time an executive agency has to waive the requirements of a law in order for it to make sense on the ground, Congress should know it’s time to step in and fix the law itself.
So, yes, fewer tests are a welcome sign that someone’s finally paying attention. We’re finally moving in the right direction. Today, the glass is half full. But my cup is not overflowing. Not yet. Not quite yet.