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Duncan: "Don't Teach to the Test!"

My mind is reeling a bit this morning, trying to come to terms with what we heard yesterday from Education Secretary Arne Duncan. According to this story in the Raleigh News & Observer, Duncan told a group of educators there that they should avoid teaching to the test.

"We want to give every child a chance to discover their genius, what they're best at."

Otherwise, Duncan said, the nation won't be able to keep up with technology advances being made in other countries. He also took aim at the emphasis on standardized testing as part of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" program.

This is consistent with President Obama's remarks in New Hampshire that I wrote about a few days ago, indicating an interest in richer assessments and moving away from bubbling in answers on multiple choice tests.

This is a shift with huge implications.

First of all, No Child Left Behind remains the law of the land. Even as we anticipate possible reauthorization this year, schools are laboring under the mandates that test scores must rise. Schools -- including Fremont High School in Los Angeles -- are being taken apart and reconstituted based on low test scores.

But more significantly, this calls into question the way states have been interpreting the "four pillars of reform" central to the $4 billion Race to the Top fund announced by the Duncan last July. These pillars are:

Pillar 1. Every state must have high standards.

Implications: The prevailing testing philosophy has been that high standards = many facts, many things to memorize that can be easily tested on multiple choice tests. If we in fact wish to privilege critical thinking and honor the spark of creativity in each students, these standards -- and assessments -- will need to look very different.

Pillar 2. Closing the "data gap." Seek high quality data tracking student achievement in every district.

Implications: What makes data high quality? We will need new kinds of data, especially data that will reflect students' abilities in areas currently ignored by the reading and math tests central to accountability systems. What will that data look like? Student portfolios reflecting their growth over the year? Teachers will need a much stronger role, in gathering and working actively with this data to guide our instruction.

Pillar 3. Reward and retain excellent teachers, and bounce the bums.

Implications: Many states have interpreted this to mean we evaluate and pay teachers according to their test scores. This is absolutely unacceptable if you say you do not want people to teach to the test! Even a business leader can understand that you cannot attach an incentive to an undesirable outcome! We will need to return to more wholistic and collaborative ways of determining the quality and effectiveness of a teacher.

Pillar 4. Remake failing schools.

Implications: The primary means used up until this point to determine if a school is failing has been math and reading scores. If test scores cease to be the primary indicator then we need to rethink who is actually failing. A school that is doing extensive test preparation may actually be a worse school than one with lower test scores! Just as our appraisal of teacher effectiveness must become more sophisticated and nuanced, our evaluation of schools must likewise be completely rethought.

I do not know if Secretary Duncan or the leaders in our state departments of education have realized all the rethinking we are going to need to do.

Leading teachers are ahead of the curve on this one. Over at Teachers' Letters to Obama we have been discussing this approach for months, and are actively discussing many of these implications, and searching for practical solutions that will work in our schools. It is exciting to feel that our concerns are being heard by Secretary Duncan, and I think we need to dive in and help find the way forward.

What do you think of Secretary Duncan's remarks and their implications? How should we receive this news?

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