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Top Education Officials Talk Test Proliferation, Quality

Washington

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Deputy Education Secretary John B. King Jr. joined others at a panel discussion at the National Press Club on Monday to discuss the state of testing in the nation's schools and efforts to correct what's seen as "overtesting."

The roundtable followed two high-profile assessment-related releases on Saturday. The first, by the Council of the Great City Schools, tackled the amount, types, and purposes of tests that are administered in the nation's urban public schools.

The second was the release of a set of principles by the Education Department for states and districts to scale back on testing—and an acknowledgment of some responsibility on the Obama administration's part for the proliferation of those tests.

One of the Education Department's recommendations was for a cap on the time students spend taking tests to no more than 2 percent of instructional time.

King, the former New York State Education Commission who oversaw a similar cap on state-mandated tests and test-preparation in New York state, stressed that it was more important, however, to have quality assessments than to focus on the time.

Duncan—who is preparing to step down as education secretary and whose spot will be filled on an acting basis by King—agreed.

"The goal is to have good assessment that drives instruction, and if you reduce testing to 1 percent, and it isn't relevant ... it is not guiding instruction, that is a loss, that's a failure, not a win," he said.  

However, if students spend slightly more than 2 percent of instructional time on testing and the assessments are helping teachers, parents understand them, and students are part of the solution, that's a good outcome,  Duncan said.

Michael Casserly, the executive director of the council whose group commissioned the testing report in 2013, said that the sentiment to reduce testing time was the right one, but was concerned that a one-size-fits-all model could lead to unintended consequences.

Sticking hard and fast to a 2 percent cap could leave only federal-mandated tests and eliminate district benchmarks that help inform classroom instruction, in Casserly's view. Concentrating on time could also still leave poorly-designed and redundant tests in place, he said.

The debate about testing has reached fever pitch and has created unusual allies, including teachers' unions, who disagree with the use of high-stake tests for teacher evaluations, and conservatives, who see the proliferation of assessments in recent years as federal overreach.

The council's report showed that the system of testing was "disjointed, incoherent and redundant," Casserly said.

Students in urban school districts would sit for 112 mandatory standardized tests from pre-K to high school graduation. And that's not counting tests given to special populations or optional tests like the ACT or SAT.

"Everybody has had a hand in what our current testing system looks like—this situation was not created by just one entity," Casserly said, kicking off the panel. "Lots of people have played a role."

States and districts are already working on ways to correct the problem.

The panel also included Chris Minnich, the executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, and two educators, June Atkinson, the state superintendent of public instruction in North Carolina, and Alberto Carvalho, the superintendent of Miami-Dade schools, who both provided snapshots of what they were doing.

Carvalho said that the conversation needed to move past the quantitative aspect and more toward whether the assessments were improving teaching and learning.

Lest anyone was worried, Carvalho pointed out that no one on the panel wanted to eliminate assessments altogether. 

Still, he is moving ahead in his district to scale back. For example, Carvalho said, eliminating 24 district benchmark assessments has returned up to 260 minutes of classroom time in the district. And statewide efforts have eliminated hundreds of end-of-course assessments, he said.   

The last word went to Atkinson, whose districts are working to cull the number of tests in specific grades following focus groups with teachers, students, and parents about how to best assess what's happening in the classroom and use that to help teachers and students get better.

The state's "proof of concept" model consists of three or four tests during the year to quickly assess what students are learning. They provide immediate feedback so that teachers and students know what to do to improve.

As for the proposed cap, she, too, said it was less about the time and more about the quality of the assessment and the purpose of the tests.

In summing up the difficulty in finding the right balance, Atkinson said assessments must "pass the Goldilocks test." 

The tests must be "not too many, not too few—just right," she said. 

The Council of the Great City Schools representatives' were expected to visit the White House Monday to discuss the report's findings. 

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