Obama’s Testing Cap: The Right Answer, Sort of


“Learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble. So, we’re going to… make sure that our kids are enjoying learning, that our teachers are able to operate with creativity, and to make sure we are preparing our kids for a lifetime of success.”

– President Obama, October 24, 2015 [1]

In a video released on October 24th announcing a new Testing Action Plan which would limit standardized testing to 2% of classroom time, President Obama offered these words that teachers, unions, administrators, parents, and students across the country have been begging him to say since he took office. While these seem like obvious components of a well-rounded American education, the President’s rhetoric represents a sharp turn in his Administration’s policies towards testing and education.

To understand the President’s remarks, it is important to consider the context of the federal government’s role in k-12 education. Ever since the adoption of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), federal education policy can be summed up in one word: accountability. NCLB stipulated that in order to receive federal education dollars, schools must annually assess every student’s progress with a standardized test and meet a benchmark level of achievement termed adequate yearly progress (AYP). If a school failed to make AYP it was required to implement reforms, such as developing a comprehensive improvement plan, offering students an option to transfer to another school, or even turning control of the school over to a private company or state officer. The idea was every school would make adequate yearly progress, those that didn’t would be fixed or shut down, and by 2014 all students in all grades would be proficient in math and reading.

This, of course, did not happen. By 2011, half of schools in the United States were not meeting their AYP standards. [2] The Obama Administration decided to deal with the sinking ship it inherited by allowing states to jump overboard. States that implemented certain reforms were granted waivers from onerous NCLB rules. Separately, the Administration also implemented the Race to the Top Program, which offered one time grants totaling $4.35 billion to states that implemented a different set of reforms.

The idea was that these programs would return some education authority to states and incentivize them to adopt innovative reforms. In reality, some states were forced to permanently codifying many of the flawed aspects of NCLB into state policy in order to get a waiver. It also further reinforced the focus on test-based accountability, leading to the problem of too much testing that the President addressed in his video.

While the President’s admission that his Administration caused this problem and his new efforts to correct it should be celebrated, this underscores a much more fundamental problem with the federal government’s relationship with k-12 education. The federal government naturally seeks to support quality public education for the sake of maximizing economic security and ensuring a well-informed citizenry (plus, no politician ever lost points for rhetoric about children and their educational opportunities.) But the federal government can’t teach, say, Ms. Brown’s 4th grade class in Des Moines, so the idea of NCLB was that the federal government would hold Ms. Brown accountable to doing her job well.

The problem is twofold: first, measuring a problem consistently does not fix it.  Secondly, Ms. Brown’s job is to support each of her student’s in their academic, social, and emotional well-being and impart learning on her students. But evaluating the “learning” of every single student in the entire country is an expensive and time consuming proposition. The multiple-choice, standardized test in math and reading is the only reasonable way to measure “learning” on a national scale.

The paradox arises in the president’s own words: “learning is about so much more than filling in a bubble.” Multiple-choice tests are by nature an incomplete measure of all that learning is. Even Everett Franklin Lindquist, the creator of the multiple choice test, warned “undue emphasis upon average test results, upon school-to-school and teacher-to-teacher comparisons . . . may cause the teacher . . . to neglect the interests of the pupils, and to be concerned instead with subject matter objectives and with higher average scores for their own sake.”[3] Yet the system demands that test results drive every decision at all levels of education.

Our obsession with accountability has put so much pressure on students and teachers that learning is dry and mechanized. The best teachers are punished for for teaching in under-performing schools where they are needed most, and discourages the brightest graduates from becoming teachers by reinforcing a negative cultural attitude towards the teaching profession.

None of this is to say that standardized testing and accountability is all bad. My point is that we must stop giving weight to multiple-choice, standardized tests that is disproportionate to their scope. Instead of using test-driven accountability to erode meaningful learning and demonize teachers, we should use it as a tool to support and improve both. This means pairing test results with other measures of accountability (such as student portfolios, administrator evaluations, and student feedback), giving schools real flexibility to implement innovative teaching strategies, and investing less in testing and more in teacher salaries and professional development.

Most critically, it means that the federal government needs to concede that it is not best positioned to be the master of accountability in schools across the US. The President’s plan to work with states to limit testing to 2% of classroom time is a step in the right direction, but it certainly is not the long-term solution that students and their teachers deserve.

Ultimately, a more comprehensive congressional re-write of federal education policy that gets rid of narrow measures of accountability and returns more education authority to states is needed. Only then will teachers feel empowered as the professionals they are and will students truly have the space “to prepare for a lifetime of success.”

Works Cited

[1] https://www.facebook.com/WhiteHouse/videos/10153858451374238/





[3] http://www.edutopia.org/blog/dark-history-of-multiple-choice-ainissa-ramirez


Photo courtesy of NASA HQ PHOTO on Flickr (attribution license).

Feature image courtesy of cybrarian77 on Flickr (attribution license).