Obama’s New Stance On Testing Won’t Polish His Tarnished Education Legacy

Halloween is at the end of the week and Thanksgiving will be here before we know it. Many of us will soon find ourselves opening up a special box in our houses full of Grandma’s silverware. The knives and spoons will likely be dull and blackened from misuse…but with a little baking soda, hot water, and elbow grease that tableware will shine like new. Meanwhile, the White House released a statement regarding the Obama Administration’s failed Education Policy over the weekend. His policy is just as scary as Halloween, as the progress of our nation hangs in the balance. It’s tarnished like Grandma’s silverware–pubic education is a great and treasured tool that has been left to ruin by misuse and lack of care. Finally, like a bad Thanksgiving turkey, Obama’s policies are dry, stuffed full of testing, and all the gravy has been taken by hedge-fund backed charter networks, private interests, and publishing companies. Unfortunately, it’s going to take a lot more than baking soda and elbow grease to bring back the luster to the Obama legacy on Education, and there just isn’t enough time.

Suddenly, the President thinks students are spending too much time taking standardized examinations. The statement is surprising as the President’s Common Core Standards, to which the tests have been aligned, have been fuel for the fire of the opt-out movement. Parents and educators are upset, claiming that the standards are developmentally inappropriate, instructionally onerous, and focused on dismantling the public school systems in this country. His “Race to the Top” resulted in the rushed and fumbled roll out of those standards so states could secure funds and align themselves to new tests. This poor adoption was a gigantic predicating factor to the current state of test-mania.

Compliance with and participation in the tests and standards have been tied to funding for those schools serving students in impoverished areas. Schools backed by private interests who aim to dismantle the public system by screening the best students before testing years and sending those who struggle back into the system have been rewarded with no accountability on their practices or expenditures. Conversely, public schools have been “held accountable” through a variety of anti-teacher practices.  Educators of all subject and content areas have had their livelihoods tied to student results on these tests despite numerous scientific claims that the “Value-Added” measures cannot measure such connections (if they exist at all) because the tests aren’t designed to measure that relationship.

On the whole, President Obama’s policies have been either an extension of bad No Child Left Behind policy or a construction of all new bad policy. While taking responsibility for this and dedicating the remainder of his term to fix it is, on its face, laudable we would do well to remember that its 2015. Any policy change at this point in the Obama administration has no teeth and is likely just the beginning of a slew of lame duck initiatives designed to make him look productive as he packs his bags and gets ready to become a private citizen again.

The shift comes as the Council of Great City Schools released a report stating that students are spending up to 2.3% of the year taking tests. This must be a measure of the time students spend physically sitting with a pencil and bubble sheet for standardized exams because any working teacher will tell you that test preparation, planning, and stress have monopolized all instruction. In charters like Eva Moskowitz’s Success for All schools, they test prep to the extent that children are encouraged to soil themselves rather than lose testing time. There seems to be a major loss in educational focus in any climate where schools can hoist a value like that on their banner.

There are many studies that have found a distinct narrowing of the American curriculum to accommodate high stakes exams. Social studies, science, physical education, art, and music–arguably the stuff of life–have all taken incredible hits as time for English Language Arts and mathematics have been boosted to prepare for tests. Of course, there’s no evidence that schools are performing better on standardized exams now when compared to previous policies–there’s some evidence that children perform worse. Luckily, the President has focused on just this one study and decided that he wants “less than 2%” of student time spent on testing. So, soon we’ll all breathe easy when that fatal three-tenths of a percentage point drops and everything will be well again in classrooms.

Ironically, the incoming Secretary of Education, John King, will be in the position of making this shift away from testing seem like a real commitment. In reality, this policy shift won’t have any likely effect as this year’s exams are paid for and next year’s may be in development already. While fact the John King is in charge of anything with more than three wheels on it is surprising to many educators, seeing as he was the man in charge of New York State’s pineapple English Language Arts exams, it will be even more interesting to watch him champion less testing.  King had steadfastly stood by the awful testing situation in New York as the controversial and generally disliked State Education Commissioner. King, however, held no esteem for parent or educator input. In New York State, ranging from the Governor to the Chancellor of the Board of Regents to the State Legislature input from private interests like parents and educators is not trumped by valuable opinions shared by Super PACs and big donors.

Watch as King (as New York State’s Education Commissioner) and Meryl Tisch, real life Dolores Umbridge and Chancellor of the New York State Board of Regents sit by dispassionately thinking about more important things (perhaps their laundry) while they are being rebuked in a public forum.

They couldn’t care less about what this woman has to say. (Side note, Meryl Tisch recently announced that she will be stepping down from the Board of Regents when her term is up this Spring. We can likely expect her in a conservative Department of Education or in a high paying position at a publishing company like Pearson soon).

It’s one thing for the President to decide that states are “obsessing” over tests while quoting percentages and quite another to actually consider what could be done to limit testing and test prep. If President Obama is truly interested in seeing states, districts, and teachers ease up on “their” testing obsession, he might consider some constructive policy alternatives:
  • Find a real leader, such as Diane Ravitch, who understands both the benefits and the drawbacks of testing. Besides showing her value as a science driven mind–she’s been on both sides of the argument and has changed positions based on evidence. She has a large body of research on the topic that would help guide thoughtful policy and is willing to work with educators and parents, rather than ignore them.
  • Value the input of parents, educators, and students. These policies impact their daily lives and futures. The three grouped together represent the authority on education, despite what successful business people say.
  • Propose decoupling test participation and Title I funding so that schools are no punished monetarily for parents taking charge over their student’s educations and opting them out of tests. We need to empower parents to take an active role in the education of their students.
  • Denounce the practice of using Value-Added Metrics to falsely tie student test scores to teacher efficacy and employment–especially for teacher who do not teach the subject being measured. If teachers don’t feel their very livelihood tied to testing circumstances they cannot control they’ll be able to make better professional decisions about the needs of their students.
  • Announce a push for greater social studies, art, music, and science programs in schools and provide grants and funds that are not tied to testing. Students need to experience the world in our classrooms.
  • Declare standardized testing as measures used only for establishing baselines for developmental appropriateness to be used in order to better align curriculum and standards. These tests should be used as diagnostics for solving problems, not as tools to punish students and schools.
  • Make it illegal for Charter Schools to “cream” their students–keeping high performing ones and expelling or forcing out other children in order to falsify their data and skew statistics in the public schools. The data they produce is worthless and the practice burdens the public system and misappropriates tax dollars.

Announcements like these, though coming late in 2015, may not amount to much in reality, but they would show a sharper eye on what is happening in our schools, to our student and teachers. Perhaps they would even guide the direction of the Department of Education for the next President of the United States to helping us rebuild a truly empowering institution in America. Without recommendations like these, along the current path–whether students are spending 1.98% of their instructional time taking tests or 95% of their time–our public education systems will crumble and decline (and become privatized). Anything else is bad for our children and bad for society.

While its great to have a population that can read and do sums, it’s equally important to foster the real-life, beneficial critical thinking skills that originate in science class and social studies, or develop creative minds into brilliant works of music and art, or train amazing athletes. Kids aren’t reading machines or calculators–they are people with a variety of talents, interests, strengths, and skills. We must take time to cultivate their totality and not just heavily weighted subjects and skills.

By throwing the stuff of life on the back burner, for students to become masters at taking tests is preposterous. Hiding behind the need for “accountability” is also. We need to decide what kind of citizens we want to have and build a curriculum that matches that. It will take a lot more than elbow grease to get our schools to shine again, but with the priorities we have now–even while we discuss a three-tenths of a percent gain in instructional time–are not focused on students and preparing the next generation of Americans. Acquiescing a role in the current state of affairs is all well and good but until President Obama, or any politician, puts students first, their policies on education will always be dull and necrotic and no amount of baking soda will return the luster to it while out children will be left with nothing but a bare bones approach to education that leaves them starving.

Brandon Melendez is a New York City educator who believes in education as the primary force for social change in the individual and for the society, in the right of parents to opt-out, and in the rights for teachers to unite and advocate for their students. He has a dual Masters of Arts in Education and is currently pursuing a doctorate in the field of Education.


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