Obama’s testing plan: A real change or more of the same?

On October 24, 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released their Testing Action Plan as a response to the increasing concern of parents, teachers, and students that standardized testing is, in their words, “unnecessary,” consumes “too much instructional time” and creates “undue stress for educators and students.” On first reading, Obama and Duncan seem to be saying that they want to decrease both the amount to time spent on testing and the high-stakes nature of tests in evaluating students, teachers, and schools. However, a closer reading suggests that they are only calling for the federal government to provide “clear assistance…for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment,” that is, more federal control. So, the actual goal is more of the same, implemented more carefully so as to blunt resistance.

The rest of the action plan’s goals are worded to suggest more than they deliver. For example, they assert that “no standardized test should be given solely for educator evaluation,” which makes it acceptable, as in New York, to use the Common Core exam to count as 50% of teachers’ evaluations and to determine whether a school is failing and should be placed in receivership.

It seems that the federal Testing Action Plan, like Cuomo’s Common Core Task Force, is not meant to respond to the concerns of parents that led to 220,000 students opting out of the Common Core exams in April 2015 but, rather, to convince the media that they are going to fine tune it to make it more palatable to the public. However, what is needed is not fine-tuning but a decrease in standardized testing. The Council of the Great City Schools reported earlier this month that students in their 66 membership districts take, from pre-K to grade 12, an average of 112 standardized tests, most of which are required under NCLB and Race to the Top.

In sum, the Obama administration, outgoing Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and incoming secretary John King — who single-handedly made high-stakes testing the single most important educational issue in New York — want to do more of the same, only sell it better.


The Department of Education press release:



Response by the NYS Allies for Public Education



A smart and snarky response from Peter Green, a teacher



Anthony Cody (co-founder of the Network for Public Education): Obama (Again) blasts all the tests his administration has sponsored



Council of the Great City Schools



Oh, so predictable: NY State Regents to make exams harder to pass

Robert Linn, a leading researcher on standardized testing and past president (2002-03) of the prestigious American Educational Research Association, predicted years ago how high-stakes standardized testing would proceed.  First, he said that states would lower the bar on the tests so that students test scores would, on average, improve every year. Such grade inflation would have two benefits. The Commissioner of Education could claim that the reforms they have initiated have resulted in increased student learning. Indeed, Richard Mills, New York’s previous Commissioner in Education, repeatedly cited the New York State standardized tests as evidence of the success of his policies. Furthermore, higher tests scores would reduce the penalties imposed initially by state systems, such as in New York, Texas and Florida, and later by federal systems, such as No Child Left Behind.

Second, Linn provided historical evidence that while a Commissioner of Education was in office, test scores typically rose at an unrealistic rate, and that the next commissioner, upon entering office, would reveal that the tests have become too easy and, therefore, would make scoring more difficult.

With the announcement by New York’s Commissioner of Education on July 19th that the tests have become too easy, do not give us valid information about a student’s ability, and therefore the tests will have to be harder, both of Linn’s predictions have come true. The tests became easier under the previous commissioner and now will be adjusted to lower the test scores. Once they have been lowered, Linn predicts that we can expect the scores to unrealistically rise over time so that the new commissioner can take credit for their improvement.

If one ever doubted the meaninglessness of scores on high-stakes tests, this is an admission by those at the top. This shows how standardized testing can be misused to benefit politician’s careers rather than benefiting teachers, students, and parents. We need other forms of assessment that are more objective and less easily manipulated.

For the New York Time’s article on the new policy, see http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/20/nyregion/20tests.html?hp

Robert Linn has numerous publications available online and elsewhere. For a review of some of the misuses of testing in New York, see my book High-states testing and the decline of teaching and learning: The real crisis in education.

A look at mayoral control of the Rochester City School District

iStock_000007118992XSmallIn Rochester, New York, Mayor Robert Duffy is pushing to take control of the Rochester City School District. Legislation to hand control over to the mayor is likely to be introduced in the New York State legislature within the next few months, if not weeks.

Such a change in governance deserves serious debate over the pros and cons. Looking at what has occurred in other school districts in which mayors took control leads me to question whether such a change results in the sought after improvements or any improvements at all. In fact, looking at the New York City schools under Mayor Bloomberg, I would suggest that the school district is less accountable to the community; citizens have lost their right to elect their representatives; and students are subjected to more frequent and damaging high-stakes tests.

First, Bloomberg replaced the elected school board with a Panel for Educational Policy that serves at his discretion. Not only does this mean that the public no longer has the right to vote for school board members, but also because Bloomberg has summarily dismissed panel members who vote contrary to his wishes, there is no power independent of the Mayor and School Chancellor.

Second, Bloomberg appointed as Chancellor Joel Klein, recent CEO for the global media giant Bertelsmann. Such a choice reflects a belief by politicians that schools can be run like business. Klein, reports journalist Lynnell Hancock, “refers to children as cars in a shop, a collection of malfunctions to be adjusted. Teacher need to ‘look under the hood,’ he says, to figure out the origins of the ping.” Thomas Sobol, past (early 1990s) New York State Commissioner of Education, describes the concentration of power as part of the assumption that corporations know best and responds: “The arrogance, my God, of saying because we know how to run Kmart, we know how to educate children represents a final defeat for democracy”  (Hancock, “School’s Out,” The Nation, July 2007).

Third, Bloomberg and Klein use students’ scores on the New York State standardized tests to argue that student learning has improved under their regime. However, as I have pointed out numerous times, New York State’s test scores were manipulated by the recent commissioner Richard Mills and are misleading, worthless, and dangerous. Almost every school has had higher scores on the New York State exams while at the same time schools’ scores on the more valid federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) have remained the same.

Many other questions should be asked and I will do so in subsequent blogs.  As someone who has been involved with the city school district for two decades, as a parent, reformer, and teacher educator, I have my criticisms of the existing school board, administrators, and teachers. However, I question whether mayoral control moves us in the right direction or simply diverts us from doing the hard work that needs to be done to improve teaching and learning.

For descriptions of the Chicago and New York City Public Schools under mayoral, see my recent book: High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education.

Obama’s education policies: More of the same

I should have known better. While I admire Obama’s ability to communicate with the public (especially as compared to his predecessor), I’m not sure whom he is listening to. I keep being disappointed that we seem to be getting more of the same, particularly when it comes to education policy. While Obama promised that he would not judge students, teachers, and schools only on test-scores, so far we haven’t seen anything different. And where the Bush administration pushed for the privatization of pubic schools, especially as charter schools, the Obama administration has used the fiscal emergency and executive discretionary funds to bludgeon states into expanding the number of charter schools.

Of course, as soon as Obama chose Arne Duncan as the Secretary of Education, I feared the worst. As I explained in chapter six of my book, High-Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education, as the CEO of the Chicago Public Schools, Duncan implemented Renaissance 2010, which sought to shift control over the public schools away from parents and the public, and towards the corporate elite. And first as CEO and now as Secretary of Education, Duncan has falsely claimed that schools have improved when, in most cases, schools’ test scores improved because they were able to enroll more middle-class students and the tests have become easier.

Diane Ravitch, who until recently was a strong supporter of high-stakes testing and No Child Left Behind, now realizes that Bush’s and Obama’s reforms have lowered standards and diminished learning. What is astonishing about Ravitch’s critique is not only the ferocity of it, but the disappointment given that she was initially a staunch advocate of more standardized exams and in an interview on Only a Teacher, a video I show in class, criticizes schools like the Urban Academy in New York City and the School Without Walls in Rochester for their resistance to requiring for graduation passing the Regents exams. Ravitch’s views can be accessed in Education Week (“Time to Kill ‘No Child Left Behind’” in the June 10th issue) and the Huffington Post: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/diane-ravitch/obamas-awful-education-pl_b_266412.html.

After No Child Left Behind

by David Hursh

With the upcoming elections we have an opportunity to shelve current federal education policy, most notably No Child Left Behind, and to develop new policies that will assist rather than harm the education system. In this and upcoming posts, I will critique current policy proposals, recommend directions our education policies might take, and suggest resources that we might use for developing policies that build on what educators, including teachers, administrators, and researchers, have learned about teaching, learning, and schools.

In creating and passing NCLB, the Bush administration and Congress intentionally ignored the voices of teachers. Moreover, the Bush administration has consistently distained educators, most notably when former Secretary of Education called teachers’ unions “terrorist organizations.”

In response, both public school teachers and administrators, and those of us who support public education must work to develop an accountability system that does not treat educators as the enemy but instead creates partnerships between teachers, parents, and the community. In the journal Voices in Urban Education published by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (Spring 2003), noted authors such as Michelle Fine and Dennie Palmer Wolf provide an outline for a new accountability system characterized by:
• Respect for parents and children.
• Internal accountability and a shared system of values and norms.
• Robust multiple indicator systems for measuring student achievement.
We need to develop new systems that provide real information for parents and the wider community and develop trust between. Developing a system to replace and improve on NCLB should be a central conversation between educators, parents, and the wider community over the next year.

Moreover, we need to recognize that the Federal government must play a positive role in education and work to develop a new education policy from preschool though post-graduate education. The recent report from The Forum for Education and Democracy (with Linda Darling-Hammond and George Wood as conveners), titled Democracy at Risk: The Need for a New Federal Education Policy, provides some initial thinking about how the federal government can play a positive role in revitalizing schools, teacher education, and educational research. They focus on
• Investments and incentives for more equitable access to high-quality schools.
• A set of intensive initiatives to develop a world-class education workforce.
• A forward-looking agenda for educational research, innovation, and dissemination, and
• New strategies that enable communities to engage with and be accountable for their local schools.
Their proposals, which I will discuss further in subsequent posts, cost money. But, as they point out, they cost far less that what is being wasted in Iraq and elsewhere, and will, in the long run, result in improved education and standard of living.

Two articles published this week that raise issues worth discussion include:

Jeremy Miller’s “Tyranny of the Test: One Year as a Kaplan Coach in the Public Schools,” published in the September issue of Harper’s Magazine. Miller, who taught in the New York City public schools, returns as Kaplan coach for the SATs. Miller describes how NCLB, because it requires “failing schools” to focus in increasing test scores, diverts funding away from where it is needed– teacher salaries, building maintenance, and supplies– and towards paying private test prep companies such as Kaplan. Much like Kozol’s The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (2005), Miller reveals how the testing regime harms our urban schools.

Paul Tough’s A Teachable Moment” in the New York Times Sunday Magazine of August 17th. After Hurricane Katrina severely damaged the New Orleans public schools’ infrastructure, the Bush administration and other neoconservatives used it as an opportunity to replace the public schools with private charter schools and poured millions of federal dollars into privatizing the system. Tough’s article focuses on the privatizing of the New Orleans public schools but ignores the larger politics of the Bush administration and privatization proponents and describes the privatization efforts in largely positive terms. The article is worth reading for its description of what is occurring in New Orleans but also should be critiqued for what is left unsaid, something I hope to do at a later time. For a brief history of privatization in New Orleans, see the last chapter in my book: High Stakes Testing and the Decline of Teaching and Learning: The Real Crisis in Education (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008).