Too much testing

Schools are giving too many tests, President Obama has declared in a Facebook video. He wants to help schools to spend no more than 2 percent of instructional time on testing, while retaining “smart, strategic” tests.

Eighth-graders — the most tested students — spend 4.22 days or 2.34 percent of school time taking mandated tests, estimates a Council of the Great City Schools study of 66 urban school districts. That doesn’t include time devoted to test prep.

No Child Left Behind requires an annual math and reading exam in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in math. Science is tested in some grades. But states and districts have added many other tests — often to qualify for federal grants and waivers, notes the Washington Post.

To win a grant under the competitive Race to the Top program, or to receive a waiver from No Child Left Behind, states had to evaluate teachers based in part on student test scores. Since federal law required standardized tests only in math and reading in certain grades, states added tests in social studies, science, languages — even physical education — to have scores they could use to evaluate teachers.

“Many of the appalling things reported on here are the direct result of the way the federal government has approached this,” said Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy. “The accountability system is what’s driving this and it’s fundamentally flawed.”

The average urban student takes roughly 112 tests between pre-K and grade 12, the Great City Schools report finds. There’s lots of duplication: Some districts require a “summative” exam and an “end-of-course” exam in the same subject. In addition, most tests “don’t actually assess students on any particular content knowledge.”

Often, results aren’t used to improve teaching, the report found. Results come months late and teachers aren’t trained in how to use the results.

Eliminating duplication makes sense, of course. But the most effective way to cut testing time is to give up on evaluating teachers by their students’ test scores. (The new Student Learning Objective assessments for non-NCLB subjects are unreliable and low-quality, says Great City Schools.) Is the Obama administration ready to back away from that policy?

Common Core-aligned tests take much longer because they require students to do more writing and less bubbling. I assume that would fall under “smart” and “strategic.”

Race to the Top: Who won?

What Did Race to the Top Accomplish? Joanne Weiss and Rick Hess discuss the question in Education Next.

Race to the Top affected education policy, concludes William G. Howell, a University of Chicago politics professor. “By strategically deploying funds to cash-strapped states and massively increasing the public profile of a controversial set of education policies, the president managed to stimulate reforms that had stalled in state legislatures, stood no chance of enactment in Congress, and could not be accomplished via unilateral action.”

The article includes an interactive map showing the percentage of Race to the Top policies implemented from 2001 through 2014, state by state.

Who backs testing? Liberal reformers

Now that school testing is unpopular, its enemies see it as “conservative,” writes Rick Hess. But, liberal reformers are the most enthusiastic advocates of testing, which they see as the way to close the “achievement gap.”

“Conservative enthusiasm for testing has been tempered by an appreciation for school choice,” Hess writes. Liberals are all in.

In 2009, the Obama administration’s Race to the Top pushed states to sign on to the yet-to-be-developed Common Core tests and to promise they’d start judging teachers based on test scores. Since that time, the administration’s dubious practice of granting states “waivers” from No Child Left Behind if they agree to pay fealty to administration priorities when it comes to things such as teacher testing has continued to herd states down this path. The teacher-evaluation systems, in particular, require a spate of new tests for the three-quarters of teachers not captured by those NCLB reading and math tests.

Well-intentioned liberal reform groups such as the Education Trust, Center for American Progress, and Democrats for Education Reform have led the gap-closing charge, Hess concludes.

Did Obama screw up Common Core?

Did Obama Screw Up Common Core? asks Fawn Johnson on National Journal.  That is, did the Obama administration turn the Core into a political hot potato by using Race to the Top money to push states to adopt the new standards?

Short answer: Yes.

Some Republican politicians are trying to persuade conservatives to support the Core, Johnson writes. But Democratic support is soft — or nonexistent, especially as Core-aligned tests kick in.

Promises, ineptitude and overreach

Race to the Top was a loser, writes Rick Hess on the fifth anniversary of the Obama administration’s $4.35 billion education competition. RTTT has become “a monument to paper promises, bureaucratic ineptitude, and federal overreach.”

Instead of letting states come up with reform ideas, the administration created a list of 19 “priorities.” States could “ace three of the 19 priorities if they promised to adopt the brand-new Common Core and its federally-funded tests.”

 Applicants produced hundreds of jargon-laden pages in an attempt to convince the Department-selected reviewers that they would do what the administration asked. As one reviewer described it to me, “We knew the states were lying. The trick was figuring out who was lying the least.”

. . . States promised to adopt “scalable and sustained strategies for turning around clusters of low-performing schools” and “clear, content-rich, sequenced, spiraled, detailed curricular frameworks.”

. . . winning states relied heavily on outside consultants funded by private foundations. This meant that in-house commitment to the promised reforms could be pretty thin.

At the height of the Great Recession, dangling billions in federal dollars encouraged state education leaders to dream up new spending programs, Hess writes. Yet the value for grant winners amounted to “about one percent of a state’s annual K-12 budget.”

The Common Core might have been “a collaborative effort of 15 or so enthusiastic states,” writes Hess. RTTT transformed it into “a quasi-federal initiative with lots of half-hearted participants who signed on only for federal dollars.”

Given that Race to the Top also pushed states to hurriedly adopt new teacher evaluation systems and specifically to use test results to gauge teachers, not-ready-for-primetime evaluation systems are now entangled with the Common Core and new state tests.

Now, states are running from their Race to the Top promises, threatening the Common Core enterprise.

Duncan tells schools how to assign teachers

Uncle Sam shouldn’t try to manage school staffing, writes Rick Hess.

The Obama administration has used its Race to the Top program and unprecedented, far-reaching conditions for states seeking “waivers” from the No Child Left Behind Act’s most destructive requirements as excuses to micromanage what states are doing on teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, and much else. In a new, particularly troubling twist, the administration has announced that states will henceforth have to ensure that “effective” teachers are distributed in a manner Uncle Sam deems equitable.

Arne Duncan, who’s not the school superintendent for the U.S., wants to staff high-poverty schools with more effective teachers, writes Hess. That’s a worthy goal, but it shouldn’t be dictated from Washington.

 Ill-conceived policies might move teachers from schools and classrooms where they are effective to situations when they are less effective. Heavy-handed efforts to reallocate teachers could drive good teachers from the profession. And we are far less able to identify “effective” teachers in any cookie-cutter fashion than federal officials might think.

Some teachers who are effective with easy-to-teach students aren’t effective with hard-to-teach students, Hess points out.

Common tests lose support

Forty-five states and the District of Columbia are moving forward on Common Core Standards, but support for common testing is eroding, reports StateImpact.

Georgia will use its own exam, instead of the costlier test developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC).

Two of Florida’s top elected leaders want Florida to leave PARCC, even though Florida is the fiscal agent for the testing consortium.

Already Alabama, North Dakota and Pennsylvania have left the consortium. Oklahoma plans to design its own test, and Indiana isn’t participating in PARCC governing board meetings right now. State education officials say they’re waiting until after a mandatory legislative review of the Common Core academic standards.

That brings the number of states participating in PARCC down to 18 plus the District of Columbia.

Pennsylvania, Utah and Alabama quit the other testing group, Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which now has 24 members. (Some states had joined both groups.)

The crumbling of the testing consortia is a “disaster,” writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper.

At this point, I won’t be surprised if we end up with 20 or more different testing systems in 2014–15. So much for commonness, so much for comparability. Rigor and alignment with tough standards are likely the next to fall.

Blinded by “technocratic hubris,” common assessment advocates “underestimated how difficult it would be to undo decades of state policy and practice on tests,” writes Smarick. Governors and state chiefs will be reluctant to spend lots of money for a testing system that will make their schools and teachers look bad, he predicted six months ago.

The Common Core sky isn’t falling, responds Checker Finn, also a Fordhamite. This is “right sizing.”

The forty-five-state thing was always artificial, induced by Race to the Top greed and perhaps a crowd mentality. Never in a million years were we going to see forty-five states truly embrace these rigorous academic expectations for their students, teachers, and schools, meet all the implementation challenges (curriculum, textbooks, technology, teacher prep, etc.), deploy new assessments, install the results of those assessments in their accountability systems, and live with the consequences of zillions of kids who, at least in the near term, fail to clear the higher bar.

It’s “better for states to drop out in advance than to fake it, pretending to use the Common Core standards but never really implementing them,” Finn writes. “That’s long-standing California-style behavior (fine standards, wretched implementation), in contrast with Massachusetts-style behavior (exemplary standards and serious implementation—and results to show for it).”

Most of the drop-out states will keep the standards, but write their own tests or sign up with ACT. They’ll give comparability, “one of the major benefits of commonality,” Finn writes. Some may change their minds later “or face up to the fact that (like Texas and Virginia) they don’t really want to use the Common Core at all.”

Common Core backlash

Indiana will “pause” implementation of Common Core standards for more state review, if Gov. Mike Pence signs a bill on his desk. It’s not clear how state Superintendent Glenda Ritz will interpret the legislation, writes Scott Elliott in the Indianapolis Star.  The State Board of Education is “deeply committed to Common Core,” but the governor will be appointing new board members this summer.

The backlash against the new standards is a national phenomenon, reports the Washington Post. Some state legislators are worried about the costs, which could add up to $12 billion a year. Others say teachers don’t have the training and resources they need.

Conservatives say “Obamacore” amounts to a national curriculum. Using federal Race to the Top grants to pressure states to adopt Common Core has backfired.

New standards will mean lower test scores — and more testing for many students.

Randi Weingarten, the head of the American Federation of Teachers and a strong  Common Core supporter, called for  a “mid-course correction” this week. “The Common Core is in trouble,” she said. “There is a serious backlash in lots of different ways, on the right and on the left.”

AFT’s proposed testing moratorium is a triangulation strategy, writes Dropout Nation.

Testing fights are nothing new

Testing controversies didn’t start with No Child Left Behind or Race to the Top, writes William J. Reese, an education history at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the New York Times. “Members of the Boston School Committee fired the first shots in the testing wars in the summer of 1845.”

Many Bostonians smugly assumed that their well-funded public schools were the nation’s best.

. . . Citizens were in for a shock. For the first time, examiners gave the highest grammar school classes a common written test, conceived by a few political activists who wanted precise measurements of school achievement. The examiners tested 530 pupils — the cream of the crop below high school. Most flunked. Critics immediately accused the examiners of injecting politics into the schools and demeaning both teachers and pupils.

In 1837, education reformer Horace Mann, the “father of the common school,” became secretary of the newly created Massachusetts Board of Education, which was “part of the Whig Party’s effort to centralize authority and make schools modern and accountable,”  writes Reese. “After a fact-finding trip abroad, Mann claimed in 1844 in a nationally publicized report that Prussia’s schools were more child-friendly and superior to America’s.” (Prussia was the Finland of the mid-19th century!)

Mann’s friend Samuel Gridley Howe, was elected to the School Committee. As a member of the examining committee, he insisted on written rather than oral tests.

His committee arrived at Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions, which angered the masters and terrified students. Pupils had one hour to write down their answers on each subject to questions drawn from assigned textbooks.

Only 30 percent passed. It turned out that students had “memorized material they often did not understand,” Reese writes.

 The examiners believed that the teacher made the school, a guiding assumption in the emerging ethos of testing. Tests, they said, would identify the many teachers who emphasized rote instruction, not understanding. They named the worst ones and called for their removal.

. . . Anticipating an angry reaction from parents, Mann told Howe to deflect criticism from the examiners by blaming the masters for low scores. While the School Committee fired a few head teachers, parents nevertheless accused Howe of deliberately embarrassing the pupils and bounced him out of office in the next election.

Testing continued. Examiners caught one master leaking questions to students. They criticized a school for black students for low expectations and performance. They worried about how to evaluate school quality.

 “Comparison of schools cannot be just,” the chairman of the examining committee wrote in 1850, “while the subjects of instruction are so differently situated as to fire-side influence, and subjected to the draw-backs inseparable from place of birth, of age, of residence, and many other adverse circumstances.”

The history is “eerily familiar,” writes Reese, author of Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History.

Why there’s a Common Core backlash

In response to a conservative defense of Common Core Standards, Heritage fellow Lindsey M. Burke describes the conservative backlash on National Review Online.

The federal government has spent billions to move Common Core forward, and it has put billions more on the line. Unfortunately, parents, teachers, tea-party activists, and governors have every reason to believe Common Core represents major, unprecedented federal intervention into education.

In theory, Common Core is a state initiative. But the Obama administration has pushed states to adopt the new standards, Burke writes.

Washington is financing the two national testing consortia that are creating the Common Core assessments. Lawmakers have tied $4.35 billion in Race to the Top grants to the adoption of standards similar to those found in a significant number of states, and they’ve made the adoption of Common Core a major factor in securing a No Child Left Behind waiver. And now, they have established a technical-review panel to work with the testing consortia on item design and validation.

For an undertaking that claims to be largely free of federal involvement, Common Core has quite a few federal fingerprints on it.

Many parents and teachers share an “understandable fear” that “the federal government is on the brink of dictating the content taught in every school,” Burke concludes.

I wish the feds had allowed Common Core to remain a state effort.