Feds call for limits on testing in schools

The Obama administration called for a cap on testing today: Students should spend no more than 2 percent of their time in school taking standardized tests, the New York Times reports.


Sixth-grade parent day at a Maryland school (woodleywonderworks / Flickr Creative Commons)

“Clear guidance” on standardized testing limits is expected to be issued by the US Department of Education by January, but the federal government has been facing mounting and bipartisan opposition to increased and often high-stakes testing in public schools.

“In moderation, smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school,” the president said. “But I also hear from parents who, rightly worry about too much testing. And I hear from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students.”

A video produced by the White House outlines three basic principles for how testing should be used in the US:

  1. Kids should only take tests that are worth taking—high quality, aimed at good instruction
  2. Tests shouldn’t crowd out teaching and learning but should enhance them
  3. Tests should be used as only one factor in telling us how schools are doing

The push for testing from the federal government, administration officials said, had gone too far, and they are expected to urge schools, through any new guidelines, to make exams less onerous and more purposeful.

If, in addition to limiting the amount of time kids spend on tests, the government intends to limit how the results of the tests are used and how much time kids are taken away from real learning to prepare for those tests, this will be a good move indeed, one that reflects a federal government that has heard and is responding to the concerns of teachers, parents, and students.

Voxitatis will wait for the official guidance to be issued, but we reported that teachers in Maryland had already sought limits on the amount of testing students are subjected to. There is still the matter of standardized testing that has been written into federal law, but it will be interesting to see how the executive thinks he can outdo the legislature on this issue, if this is truly what the president wants.

I’m very pleased the administration will be moving in the right direction. It took politicians long enough to realize what we and other educators have been saying since a few years after George W Bush’s No Child Left Behind law went into effect and certainly since US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan started issuing waivers to states from some of the most onerous requirements of the federal education law.

Mr Duncan even criticized parents who objected to the tests, calling them “suburban soccer moms” who couldn’t accept the “fact” that their kids were as smart as they thought they were. The kids weren’t the problem; the test was. The law that turned our schools into test-production factories and test-development efforts at companies like Pearson into boondoggles has to be reworked.

Schools aren’t businesses. They shouldn’t be held accountable to the same accountability rules. Instead they’re places where kids tune their skills and knowledge; they don’t always start out test-perfect, no matter how willing politicians are to hold them to that standard.

Some will say the damage has already been done: Twelve years’ worth of kids have been lost to the test-prep domain and turned into dysfunctional citizens able only to respond to a set of multiple-choice options. They have learned how to complete useless tasks instead of learning how to analyze real-world situations.

I don’t think it’s quite that bad, but I only know that a reduction in the amount of testing can only help the situation. Other parts of NCLB need to go away as well, but perhaps that’s too much to hope for.

What we can hope for, though, is teachers who care about kids and parents who are engaged in their children’s education. The over-testing has indeed encouraged us to pursue both of those goals with full force, and that’s a good thing.

Testing will not go away, and I don’t want to lump formative tests teachers use in with mandated statewide standardized tests. The former tests are useful and enhance kids’ education; the latter line the pockets of shareholders at test-production and test-development companies. These standardized tests have nothing to do with education quality or with the high expectations and accountability we need for both teachers and students.

I would rather the federal government focus on money issues and stay out of anything that comes close to touching on the subject matter of what teachers teach, but that viewpoint is naïve. Still, school buildings can be maintained through Title I grants and kids fed. We can keep politicians, including governors, from lowering standards for schools in their states or encouraging bad teaching. We can ensure student rights for all students in all neighborhoods.

Tests don’t help with any of those goals, but the federal government can play a vital role, now that it will waste less time dictating how schools in our states test their students. It will, I hope, inspire teachers and students, not bog them down with testing mandates.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more biographical information, see the About page.