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Communicate Better About Standards and Tests, Duncan Urges State Boards

Arlington, Va.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has a clear message to state school boards about thorny issues like standards and new tests: Make sure you talk to people when rolling out important new policy measures, and keep on talking as needed.

In remarks at the National Association of State Boards of Education's policy conference on Friday, Duncan urged officials to counter what he said was "misinformation" percolating in states about content standards, as opposition to and concern about the Common Core State Standards and their aligned assessments continues to bubble in legislatures. At one point, he urged the state policy officials to redouble their efforts to provide accurate information to schools, parents, and others. (He's been pushing that theme for a while as he seeks to protect the common core.)

Without such efforts, he told the NASBE conference, "the vacuum gets filled up" with misinformation and disinformation.

On new state assessments aligned to the common core, which are being field-tested this spring, he told state board members something counterintuitive—that if field tests go smoothly, something's gone wrong. The reason? The whole point of field-testing is to identify problems with the assessments. Duncan also stressed that leaders needed to broadcast the fact that careers and educations don't hang in the balance based on the field-testing results: "This is 'no-stakes ... communicate that now."

An appropriate piece of news in this common-core testing vein broke just before the education secretary's remarks: The Smarter Balanced testing consortium, one of two groups developing common-core aligned tests with federal funding, delayed its field testing by one week from its scheduled start, pushing the tests back from March 18 until March 25.

In addition to stressing the importance of high-school graduation rates, early-childhood education, and career and technical education, Duncan issued something of a challenge to board members: He said he would be delighted to see a couple of states take the plunge and declare that they would no longer buy traditional textbooks for students and switch to digital materials.

"By the time they get to your students they are already basically obsolete," he told NASBE, referring to textbooks.

The state board members got something of a warm-up for the secretary's challenge earlier in the day, when Hall Davidson, the director of the Discovery Education Network, took NASBE members on a tour of how digital education could create a "Subgroup of One" in classrooms through personalized learning. He compared traditional classrooms to older airplanes where all passengers watched the same movie on a few screens, whereas classrooms equipped with "talking" textbooks and tablets being used by students on their own were like modern, individual entertainment systems on planes.

But the discussion Davidson had with board members also spread to trickier issues. He and state board officials discussed the difficulty of emphasizing digital materials' ability to improve learning, when sometimes, board members said, education technology is mainly thought of as a key to providing better tests during a time of high anxiety about assessments. Clearly, state tests were both in the foreground and part of the backdrop during the NASBE meeting.

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