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Responding to Complaints, Obama Proposes Less Federal Emphasis on Standardized Testing

October 29, 2015

Faced with a steadily rising tide of complaints from parents and teachers that students are spending too much of the school year taking an assortment of government-mandated standardized tests, President Barack Obama rolled out a plan during the past week that he said would prevent “over-testing” of the nation’s students.

“I’ve heard from parents who worry that too much testing is keeping their kids from learning some of life’s most important lessons. I’ve heard 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. I want to fix that,” President Obama said in a White House blog post on October 26 headlined “An Open Letter to America’s Parents and Teachers: Let’s Make Our Testing Smarter.” Some of the president’s remarks were also released through social media in the form of a three-minute video posted on the White House Facebook page.

On the same day, the U.S. Department of Education posted a “fact sheet” for the Obama Administration’s “Testing Action Plan.” The document included something of a mea culpa on the administration’s part, saying “In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.”

The document outlined the following actions that the Obama Administration plans to take:

President Obama has directed the Department of Education (the Department) to review its policies to address any places where the Administration may have contributed to the problem of overemphasis on testing burdening classroom time. As a result, the Administration is undertaking the following:

  1. Financial support for states to develop and use better, less burdensome assessments:
  1. Expertise to states and school districts looking to reduce time spent on testing:
  1. Flexibility from federal mandates and greater support to innovate and reduce testing:
  1. Reducing the reliance on student test scores through our rules and executive actions:

The Obama Administration’s initiative was warmly greeted by California Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who has found himself at odds with the Obama Administration on education policy regarding testing in the past. Torlakson said in a press release:

"“We are very pleased by the plan put out by the federal government. California has been a leader in trying to limit testing. In 2013-2014, we worked hard to obtain a double testing waiver that the federal government was reluctant to approve, arguing that double testing was counterproductive and a waste of time to test on the old standards when we were teaching the new standards. Tests provide valuable information that can identify a student’s progress and help improve instruction, but we believe tests should be only one of many measures used to gauge a student’s progress, along with homework, class tests, grades, and other factors.”

"Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tennessee) gave a distinctly cooler assessment in an op-ed piece published in Time Magazine. Alexander wrote, in part:

"“The President is right about students taking too many tests. But I hope he will stop and think before trying to cure over-testing by telling teachers exactly how much time to spend on testing or what the tests should be. Classroom teachers know better than Washington how to assess their students’ progress. They also know that the real reason we have too many tests is that there are too many federal mandates that put high stakes on student test results, and that one more Washington decree – even if it is only a recommendation for now – is not the way to solve the problem of too many federal mandates.”

"Alexander served as U.S. Secretary of Education under President George H.W, Bush in the 1980s, and he is now the Chairman of the Senate Education Committee. Alexander is one of the primary architects of the bipartisan legislation that would renew the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which is currently working its way through the House/Senate conference committee process in the nation’s capital. Alexander said:

“Both the Senate and House of Representatives have passed similar bills to fix No Child Left Behind and to reduce the federal mandates that are the real cause of over-testing. The best way to have fewer and better tests in America’s classrooms is for Congress to finish its work and the president to sign our legislation before the end of the year.”

Sources:  White House Blog, U.S. Department of Education, California Department of Education, Office of Sen. Lamar Alexander, EdBrief staff.

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