US Ed Secretary: ‘Testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools’

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan joined the growing chorus of teachers and parents lamenting the role of testing in American schools, outlining in his blog that he has heard the concerns and has authorized a one-year delay in incorporating student scores in teacher evaluations.

(A Georgia Department of Education spokesman told me DOE has made no decision on whether it will delay using student scores in evaluations, saying, “It’s very early to say anything for certain about this as we just found out about this late last week. We will be discussing it to come up with the next step.”)

 This is an excerpt of Duncan’s essay, followed by a statement from Gwinnett school chief J. Alvin Wilbanks and another superintendent.

First, Duncan’s comments:

There are three main issues I’ve heard about repeatedly from educators:

•It doesn’t make sense to hold them accountable during this transition year for results on the new assessments – a test many of them have not seen before – and as many are coming up to speed with new standards.

•The standardized tests they have today focus too much on basic skills, not enough on critical thinking and deeper learning.

•Testing – and test preparation – takes up too much time.

I share these concerns. And I want our department to be part of the solution.

To those who are reading the last sentence with surprise let me be clear: assessment is a vital part of teaching and learning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress. Schools, teachers and families need and deserve clear, useful information about how their students are progressing. As a parent of two children in public school, I know I want that. And in fact, most teachers and principals I talk with want to be held responsible for students’ progress – through a sensible, smart combination of factors that reflect their work with students – not the level students came in at, or factors outside of their control.

But assessment needs to be done wisely. No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test or tests alone – always on a mix of measures – which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators.

In Nevada, educators include a teacher’s contribution to the school community in their measures; in Hawaii, schools consider student feedback surveys and professional growth, such as leading workshops or taking university coursework). Educators in Delaware look at measures of planning and preparation such as lesson plans and descriptions of instructional strategies to be used for students with diverse needs. Federal policy rightly stays out of picking those individual measures, but ensures that in evaluating teachers, states and districts include student growth, and consider multiple measures.

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards, improved systems for data, better aligned assessments, teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who’ve worked through it have told me it’s allowed them to become the best teachers they’ve ever been. That change needs educators’ full attention.

That’s why – as I shared in a conversation with dozens of teachers at Jefferson Middle School in Washington, D.C. earlier today – we will be taking action in the coming weeks that give states more flexibility in key areas that teachers have said are causing worry.

States will have the opportunity to request a delay in when test results matter for teacher evaluation during this transition. As we always have, we’ll work with them in a spirit of flexibility to develop a plan that works, but typically I’d expect this to mean that states that request this delay will push back by one year (to 2015-16) the time when student growth measures based on new state assessments become part of their evaluation systems – and we will work with states seeking other areas of flexibility as well.

We want to make sure that they are still sharing growth data with their teachers, and still moving forward on the other critical pieces of evaluation systems that provide useful feedback to educators.  We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right. These changes are incredibly important, and educators should not have to make them in an atmosphere of worry. Some states will choose to take advantage of that flexibility; others, especially those that are well along in this transition, will not need a delay.

The bottom line is that educators deserve strong support as our schools make vital, and urgently needed, changes. As many educators have pointed out, getting this right rests also on high-quality assessments. Many educators, and parents, have made clear that they’re supportive of assessment that measures what matters – but that a lot of tests today don’t do that – they focus too much on basic skills rather than problem solving and critical thinking. That’s why we’ve committed a third of a billion dollars to two consortia of states working to create new assessments that get beyond the bubble test, and do a better job of measuring critical thinking and writing.

I’m concerned, too, when I see places where adults are gaming tests, rather than using them to help students.

And we also need to recognize that in many places, the sheer quantity of testing – and test prep – has become an issue. In some schools and districts, over time tests have simply been layered on top of one another, without a clear sense of strategy or direction. Where tests are redundant, or not sufficiently helpful for instruction, they cost precious time that teachers and kids can’t afford. Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.

There’s plenty of responsibility to share on these challenges, and a fair chunk of that sits with me and my department. We encouraged states to move a whole lot of changes simultaneously, because of the enormous urgency to raise standards and improve systems of teacher support – not for another generation of students, but for today’s students.

But in how this change happens, we need to listen carefully to the teachers, principals and other educators who are living it on a daily basis – and we need to be true to our promise to be tight on outcomes, but loose on how we get there.

From my first day on this job, the objective has been to work in a spirit of flexibility to help states and communities improve outcomes for kids. We need to make changes, but we are also making progress. I’m determined that, working in partnership, we’ll continue to do both – be flexible and make progress for our kids.

Change is hard, and changes of significance rarely work exactly as planned. But in partnership, making course alterations as necessary, we will get there.

 The Duncan statement drew response from the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium, a network of leaders from 16 of the nation’s most diverse and high achieving districts. Consortium Chair J. Alvin Wilbanks, superintendent of Gwinnett County Public Schools, and Co‐chair Joshua P. Starr, superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools, issued the following statement:

“We agree with Secretary Duncan that there is too much focus on testing in education today — it is something that we hear every day from our parents, our teachers, and our students. We also agree with the Secretary that meaningful assessments are a critical part of good teaching and learning — but only if the tests are valid measures of what students know and are able to do and accountability measures are focused on fostering improvement. With so much change happening in education, we need to take the time to get things right and that means reducing the pressure of high‐stakes tests.

“We have a once‐in‐a‐generation opportunity to improve education, with new, rigorous standards and the development of stronger curricula and assessments to raise the level of instruction in our country. But to take full advantage of this opportunity, we must give our teachers and school leaders the time they need to implement the standards and prepare students for success.

“We have seen first‐hand the impact of policies that rely too heavily on standardized assessments and how our students, teachers, and parents bear the burden of these ill‐advised accountability systems. It is critically important that we work together to use the right assessments to measure student learning and to, in turn, hold ourselves accountable for meeting the needs of our students.

“We agree with Secretary Duncan that new assessments need to be developed carefully and wisely and we appreciate his recognition that educator evaluations should be based on multiple measures. It make sense that states have been given the opportunity to request a delay in the use of test results of educator evaluations as they transition to better measures of student performance.

“The time has come for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) to be reauthorized and our state and federal accountability systems to be aligned with the skills and knowledge that students will need to be successful in the 21st century. The Consortium has developed a proposed accountability framework that includes high‐quality systems of assessment; multiple measures to assess the performance of schools and districts; and policies and funding streams designed to encourage collaboration and creativity.

“The Consortium stands ready to work with Secretary Duncan and Congress on the reauthorization of ESEA and an accountability system that is meaningful, educationally sound, and is focused on what is right for children.”

By Maureen Downey

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