United States / Education

More Words, Less Change: Breaking Down the President’s “Testing Action Plan”

President Obama made waves in the education world this October when his administration released a “Testing Action Plan” with a stated goal of reducing the burdens of standardized testing in American public schools. But despite this lofty goal, the plan itself does very little to change federal education policy.

The administration’s announcement came as a surprise to many in the sector because education policy throughout Obama’s presidency has largely focused on expanding the use of standardized testing in public schools.

The most notable expansion of standardized testing, the 2009 Race to the Top initiative, encouraged states to compete for federal funding by adopting state-level education measures favored by the Obama administration. To be eligible for grant money, states must increase the number of standardized tests administered each year and began tying teacher evaluations to students’ test performances. Forty-six states and the District of Columbia each participated in Race to the Top; the nineteen that were deemed the most successful received federal funding.

Although Race to the Top is the Obama administration’s most widespread standardized testing initiative, it was hardly the only program aiming to increase the use of standardized testing. In 2014, the Department of Education announced a similar plan aimed at Native American schools. Several initiatives have also aimed to increase participation in standardized testing among special needs students.

But such policies have incited criticism from groups across the political spectrum. Some progressives have expressed concern about the corporate influence in the creation of standardized tests. Teachers unions have argued for years that standardized testing doesn’t accurately measure students’ capabilities. Many conservatives see federally-mandated standardized testing as government overreach, saying that teacher evaluation and school funding should be managed at the state and local levels. And some parents and students—even those who don’t have any ideological issue with standardized testing—have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to the amount of time devoted to standardized tests.

While the opponents of standardized testing might be relieved by the president’s flip-flop, they may not want to celebrate too soon. Although the Testing Action Plan released by the Department of Education represents a substantial shift in Obama’s rhetoric, it is relatively lacking in policy prescriptions.

First, the Testing Action Plan does not mandate any direct policy changes; rather, it is just a set of guidelines directed at states and school districts, encouraging them to reform testing at a local level. But even if districts try to reform based on its advice, they are likely to find that the plan does not resolve the key issues surrounding standardized testing in American public schools.

The new guidelines mandate that exams must be “high quality,” “worth taking,” and “supportive of fairness,” but provide no explanation of how a test would meet these standards. This lack of clarity is problematic because the content of standardized tests has been a serious source of contention in the education community.

For example, the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests—used in 11 states and the District of Columbia during the 2014–2015 school year—were recently described by New Jersey Education Commissioner David Hespe as an “honest, accurate assessment.” Yet nearly 50,000 students in New Jersey opted out of the test last year, with some parents and teachers complaining that the questions were confusing and the standards were unfair. These disagreements will likely continue, and the new guidelines don’t provide a way to resolve them.

The Testing Action Plan also seems out-of-touch with current conflicts about the role of standardized testing. For example, its guidelines point to New Mexico as an example of a state that has effectively reduced standardized testing while maintaining a system of accountability, yet thousands of high school students in New Mexico refused to take standardized tests last spring, saying the tests’ material didn’t correspond with what they were learning in school. Furthermore, an audit conducted by the New Mexico Public Education Department recently showed that 63 percent of New Mexico schools districts were using redundant standardized tests. 

The plan is more specific on the issue of time spent on standardized testing: It recommends that individual states “place a cap on the percentage of instructional time students spend taking required statewide standardized assessments to ensure that no child spends more than 2 percent of her classroom time taking these tests.” But this number doesn’t represent a substantial change: 2 percent of total class time is 20 to 25 hours of standardized testing per year, which is roughly the average amount of standardized testing that middle and high school students are currently taking. So although there may be a reduction of testing in some cases, it won’t affect the majority of students.

The Test Action Plan also attempts to reduce the time that schools spend on standardized testing by recommending a reduction in “test prep” time. Test prep time is typically considered the time students spend learning the idiosyncrasies of various standardized tests, or in some cases, practicing filling in bubbles. The new guidelines call for the elimination of these “low-quality test preparation strategies,” but don’t explain how such elimination will occur.

Few teachers and administrators believe that test preparation is useful for children’s learning, yet many believe test prep strategies will help students score higher on the standardized tests. Standardized test results affect school and district funding, and in some cases, teachers’ evaluations and pay. The Obama administration has repeatedly encouraged states to use test results for these purposes.

Photo by flickr.com user biologycorner

Photo by flickr.com user biologycorner

Therefore, classroom practices that encourage good standardized test scores, even if they do not aid student learning, will continue. This is the conundrum that has plagued education policy since the adoption of high-stakes standardized testing, and the new Test Action Plan does nothing to resolve it.

Ultimately, it will take time to see how, if at all, the Department of Education’s new stance affects standardized testing in American public schools. If President Obama is serious about reforming testing in the final year of his presidency, time goals and general descriptors will not be enough; rather, he will need to reassess the institutional uses of standardized testing that his administration has previously encouraged.

To further complicate the situation, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will be stepping down in December, so much of the task of standardized test reform will fall to former New York Education Commissioner John King, who will take Duncan’s place. King was a strong proponent of standardized testing during his tenure in New York, so it is unclear how he will navigate the guidelines created by his predecessor.

There is always the possibility that President Obama’s shift in rhetoric will lead to a substantial policy change. But the Department of Education’s current Testing Action Plan seems like lots of words with little action.