Here’s What The Obama Administration’s New Guidelines On Tests In Schools Mean

President Barack Obama waves to guests as he takes the stage during a Democratic fundraiser at the Warfield Theater, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) CREDIT: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS, AP
President Barack Obama waves to guests as he takes the stage during a Democratic fundraiser at the Warfield Theater, Saturday, Oct. 10, 2015 in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) CREDIT: PABLO MARTINEZ MONSIVAIS, AP

The Obama administration seemingly made a huge turnaround in its education policy over the weekend. It released guidance on the amount of time schools spend on testing. The U.S. Department of Education recommended schools to spend no more than 2 percent of classroom time taking tests. The administration’s guidance didn’t get very specific besides saying that tests should be “fair,” but it announced it would release more specific guidance on testing in January.

This announcement comes after resistance from parents all over the U.S. as part of the opt-out movement, which was particularly strong in New York, New Jersey, Indiana, Michigan, South Carolina, Oregon and Wisconsin.

In New York, the movement took hold in mostly affluent, suburban areas, and Robert Pondiscio, senior fellow at the Fordham Institute, argues that the demographics of who is participating heavily in opt outs tells us something — namely that white students can afford to opt out of testing. He writes that students of color are the beneficiaries of accountability through testing because data is necessary to demonstrate whether or not their schools are serving them properly, and white students in affluent, suburban areas are less like to attend schools that aren’t meeting their needs.

There’s another question of how high-poverty schools with predominantly black and Hispanic students carry out standardized testing, however, because these schools have fewer resources. The new guidelines may offer some relief for schools that are overwhelmed by the amount of time spent on testing and have less money to pay for materials that allow students to perform better on tests, K-12 education experts and teachers say.

The challenge of aligning resources with exams

Jose Vilson, a middle school math educator in the Inwood/Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City and author of “This Is Not A Test: A New Narrative on Race, Class, and the Future of Education,” said he is concerned about how well school districts with fewer resources can align their test-prep materials with exams.

“Is it a matter of the students using the right set of curricular tools so they can ace an exam that’s made by the same publisher [as the textbook] or are we really going to be able to get a good sense of whether kids learned something?” Vilson said. “Even conversations about math — if you have the test made by Pearson, for example — but the school chooses McGraw-Hill textbooks, are you going to have an aligned curriculum or are you going to have different ideas for what the standards actually mean?”

If schools are going to implement higher standards through Common Core, and have measures of accountability through testing, resources need to be aligned with those demands, which is not happening for many schools, said Scott Sargrad, director of accountability and standards for education policy team at the Center for American Progress. A report released this month by the Council of Great City Schools, a nonprofit, reported that there is a lack of alignment with college and career ready standards and tests “often do not assess student mastery of any specific content.”

“There’s a big problem with a disconnect with what teachers are teaching students and what students are learning and what materials teachers have available. That’s a big and long-term fix but it is really about implementing much clearer, well-aligned systems of standards, curricula, and assessments and these things need to work together, but in a lot of places they aren’t working together at all,” Sargrad said. “You have high standards but then you have to supplement that with curricular materials and other materials that help to support the learning, and if you’re in a disadvantaged district and have low-income kids you don’t have the money needed to purchase those things.”

The focus on time spent on tests ignores ‘testing culture’

The 2 percent cap is a place to start when discussing how time to spend on testing in the classroom, but there is conflicting research on whether 2 percent is the right amount of time, or exactly what the ideal amount of time spent on testing should be. The nonprofit organization the Council of the Great City Schools considered 2.3 percent to be an excessive amount of time to spend on tests and Duncan said he took the number from New York’s standardized testing cap, where Common Core implementation, teacher evaluations and standardized testing approaches have been heavily criticized, according to The Washington Post.

However, the problem of “overtesting” is much bigger than what percentage of time is spent on tests in the classroom, Vilson said.

“This 2 percent nonsense — It’s going to permeate anyway. The testing structure, it’s already in our most endangered schools, so regardless of what percentage it is, even if they try to put a cap on it federally, people are still going to whisper, ‘Hey we need these scores to go up,’ and teachers are still going to be focused on how to get their students to pass their exams, so put a percentage on it all you want but there are all of these other issues that you can’t put a cap on either,” Vilson said.

Sargrad said he’s also worried about the “culture of testing,” through events such as testing pep rallies.

“There is a culture around testing and emphasis on end-of-year tests … and saying it will determine teachers’ jobs and telling students that is just not helpful for making it a normal part of the learning experience. The tests are a general way you measure progress to actually help with learning so when there are a lot of stakes attached to them it sort of distorts that purpose,” Sargrad said. “And there is definitely concern about how the amount of time spent testing needs to be reduced, but the issue of quality of tests, such as alignment of tests to the standards and curriculum and the usefulness and value of tests actually have matter just as much as hours actually spent on them.”

So what does this mean?

Sargrad said that although the guidance doesn’t have any teeth, he is optimistic that it will send a message to states and school districts about how they should view the role of testing in schools. The U.S. Department of Education’s offer to help states audit their assessment systems, assuming they receive the funding from Congress, is also encouraging. The department has also offered to help reduce the number of tests for teacher evaluation, which has become one of the more politically contentious points among parents and teachers who say students are being tested too much.

“It’s not a requirement but the 2 percent cap and putting that out there as something they think is reasonable encourages states to at least consider that as a cap or as a starting point,” Sargrad said. “Telling states they want to help them reduce the number of tests for teacher evaluation purposes is pretty big and if the department is able to help states do that, that will reduce a lot of unnecessary tests and the states can figure out other ways to measure student learning and teacher approaches.”