Last week President Obama seemed to have reverted to a position on testing that was at the heart of why so many educators supported his candidacy. In a town hall-style meeting last week, in response to a question from a high school student, “Could you reduce the amount of testing?”, the president offered the following:
Well, I think probably what you’re referring to are standardized tests — because if you’re just talking about your math or your science or your English test, tough luck — (laughter) — you’ve got to keep on taking those tests, because that’s part of the way that teachers are going to know whether you’re making progress and whether you understand the subject matter.
What is true, though, is that we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.
Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well. Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.
So what I want to do is — one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not earning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test.
And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.
I like what I hear. There’s only one problem: it puts the president at odds with his Secretary of Education, his Department of Education, and his education policies thus far, namely “Race to the Top” and his proposed “Blueprint for Education” — the administration’s roadmap for reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, aka NCLB. It’s a pretty clear statement of what he wants for his own kids and what they get at Sidwell Friends. We should hold his feet to the fire to ensure that what’s good for President Obama’s children is good for all of America’s children.
This position puts him in closer alignment with the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education folks and makes the Standardistas apoplectic, including staff at the DoE who are scrambling to reconcile the difference between words spoken and policy promulgated. For an interesting discussion of all this, see Anthony Cody’s blog posts on the Department of Education’s response.
Obama Knows Best, Part One: How Should we Assess Learning?
Obama Knows Best, Part 2: “Too Often we are Using These Tests to Punish Students or Schools.”
Also, check out this followup in today’s New York Times: Bloggers Challenge President on Standardized Testing.