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Opinion: An Inconvenient Truth About President Obama’s Testing Plan

Capping standardized testing at 2 percent of instruction time should overjoy the opt-out movement. So why are they outraged?

laura waters
Laura Waters

On Saturday President Obama proposed a “Testing Action Plan” (TAP) that urges states to cap student standardized testing at no more than 2 percent of instructional time per year.

Media outlets greeted his proposal as news, forgetting, perhaps, that the White House actually proposed the same plan this past summer, as did the Council of Chief State School Officers, the group that developed the Common Core State Standards.

But redundancy isn’t the point. Instead, the president has successfully undermined a set of dynamics that have produced the opt-out movement, which draws its constituency from teacher unions, suburban parents, and local-control adherents. The proof is in anti-testers’ uniformly negative reaction to sensible constraints on the impact of assessments on instructional time.

Counterintuitive? Perhaps. Why, after all, would many of those who feign concern about overtesting greet a proposal for testing reduction with fearful jibes? Because much of the opt-out movement has nothing to do with student welfare and everything to do with teacher job security. If we strip the pretense from the presumption that state-led efforts toward higher standards and accountability have led to an epidemic of student stress, then the opt-out movement, even among its primary constituency of wealthy suburban parents, loses its vigor.

First, the facts: let’s look at what TAP does and doesn’t do in New Jersey:

  • It does not overturn current federal mandates for annual standardized testing on course standards. The 2 percent cap -- and, remember, this is a recommendation, not a mandate -- has no impact on New Jersey’s use of PARCC assessments. Do the math: for the typical 180-day school year, 2 percent of the time is 3.6 days, or about 21 hours. As newly configured, PARCC is nine to 10 hours, or less than half the recommended time for test-taking.

  • It has no impact on the New Jersey Department of Education or the state Legislature, although either could propose such a policy or law. Last year, for example, New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed a law that placed a 2 percent cap on instructional time devoted to test preparation; New Jersey could follow suit.

Here’s what the Testing Action Plan does do:

  • It places the burden for finding the proper balance between instruction and assessment on local school boards and districts because overtesting is a local problem, not a federal one. Just as Princeton Public Schools recently limited homework, school boards have always had the prerogative to cap time spent on locally developed tests or direct superintendents to examine test redundancies, especially at the secondary level.

  • It puts extra burdens on school administrators and teachers to integrate testing into instruction, as well as integrate testing hours into instructional days. During this nascent year of PARCC testing, some districts reported that although the test itself lasted only 45 minutes, teachers and students still sacrificed a full day. That’s a management problem, not a testing problem.

As Charlie Barone points out, “on average, federal policies account for seven hours of testing per year -- roughly 0.6 percent of an average school year.” And as indicated by the recent Education Post poll, a plurality of parents believe that “fair and periodic standardized testing allows parents to know that their child is learning what they need to succeed.” (Disclosure: I’m part of the Education Post network.) But these facts belie the sentiments that draw testing opponents. Hence, the jibes and resentful reactions that greeted the President’s proposal.

Just listen: Peter Green of the National Education Policy Center: “Obama’s Testing Action Plan Sucks.”

Badass Teachers Association board member Dr. Denisha Jones: “Although this is a step in the right direction I feel we need to see what the policy is before we count this as a win. Given his actions in New York, I have no reason to trust John King [Obama’s new secretary of education], and I'm concerned that this is a ploy to get teachers on the side of Democrats aka Hillary Clinton.”

Diane Ravitch’s Network for Public Education: “NPE is disappointed by the limited response to what it views as a national education crisis … Limiting testing to 2 percent is a symbolic gesture that will have little impact so long as these tests are used for high-stakes purposes.”

And, more locally, the NJEA: "We are pleased that President Obama has acknowledged that overtesting our students is counterproductive to a healthy school-learning environment. His call to limit time spent on testing to no more than two percent of total instructional time is a good first step. However, that does not go far enough to address the negative impact that these high-stakes tests have on classroom instruction.”

This fear of accurate information among testing opponents is palpable. If parents realize that standardized assessments don’t, in fact, consume untoward amounts of instructional time, then they’re less likely to refuse tests for their children. If Tea Partiers and state rightists realize that the bulk of student testing is locally controlled, then their resentment of federal oversight is diminished. If the primary motivation of groups like Opt Out United, the NEA, and the AFT is unveiled as resentment towards changes in tenure law and teacher evaluations, then the momentum of the anti-testing movement is drained off.

There’s a proper balance between instruction and assessment, and school districts have struggled this past year to achieve equilibrium. As results on newly calibrated assessment results aligned with higher standards trickle in, parents are confronted with news that our children aren’t as academically proficient as we thought. Teacher evaluations are evolving in order to elevate the profession and, as with testing, we strive to strike the right balance. Change is hard. But no one is well-served when we cloak fear of accountability in a mantle of convolution about testing. Let’s keep the focus on children, not labor leaders.

Laura Waters writes about education politics and policy for NJ Spotlight and other publications. She also blogs at NJ Left Behind and has been a school board member in Lawrence Township (Mercer County) for 10 years.

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