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Obama’s Call for Less Testing May Not Change Much in New Jersey Schools

President’s statement offers suggestions, not mandates – and state’s new PARCC tests already take less time than proposed

president barack obama
President Barack Obama speaks about "over-testing" in American schools.

President Barack Obama took to the Internet on Saturday to announce a nationwide “testing action plan” that would encourage new limits on standardized testing and promote more meaningful and less burdensome assessments of educational achievement.

But from New Jersey’s standpoint, the president’s unusual decree on what he called over-testing may end up generating more political buzz than anything concrete that might happen in the state’s schools.

For example, Obama’s three-minute video posted on Facebook called for limiting state testing to no more than 2 percent of instructional time, the equivalent of a three or four days out of the school year.

Just doing the straight math, New Jersey will likely fall well within that parameter -- maybe with room to spare.

Next spring, a shortened version of the PARCC testing in math and language arts will take as much as about nine and a half hours to administer, with the exact figure varying with the grade. That would keep the time spent on testing to about 1 percent of the instructional year.

But such measures can be tricky and the impact of the president’s announcement may become murky.

For example, the testing time suggested by Obama doesn’t factor in preparation for testing or the other assessments given throughout the year, ranging from commercial tests that check on students’ progress to individual schools’ midterm and final exams.

In New Jersey, for instance, an extra science test in certain grades adds another four hours of testing.

A study released this weekend by the Council of Great City Schools, a coalition of more than 70 urban districts nationwide, found that average total testing exceeds 20 hours a year when counting other standardized exams.

A state task force appointed by Gov. Chris Christie was charged with looking at the amount of testing that takes place in New Jersey public schools, with an eye on trying to eliminate duplication of local and state testing.

The task force was announced by Christie in the face of increasing opposition in the Legislature to the scope of state testing and plans for how the new tests will be used to judge students, schools and teachers.

At the same time, the administration also extended limits on the use of the test results in evaluating teachers for at least another year. Test results can account for no more than 10 percent of a teacher’s evaluation this year.

In its interim report last winter, the task force called on all school districts and schools to take an inventory of all of their testing.

But the task force, which was supposed to complete its work this past summer, has yet to release its final report, and state Education Commissioner David Hespe, the task force’s chairman, has been quiet about the results.

In the end, the president calls for limiting testing may end up being not much more than an academic exercise. His videotaped statement on Saturday did not suggest that he would be taking executive action but was instead laying out broad principles to guide future federal policy.

Obama did point to some ways the federal government might encourage testing limits, citing some grant and other regulatory opportunities that encourage more efficient assessments. His announcement cited a dozen states that have already taken such steps -- New Jersey not among them.

There is a certain irony to the moves, since the Obama administration played a big part in spawning the heavier emphasis on testing through its Race to the Top grant competition and its emphasis on accountability.

That made the timing of the president’s statement even more interesting, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the chief architect of the Race to the Top plan, announced a few weeks ago that he would step down from the position in December.

In addition, Congress has been stalemated in efforts to reach agreement on the new federal education law, and Obama’s outreach was seen as some as a step to appease testing critics and jumpstart that process anew.

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