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School Districts Praise Ed. Secretary for Recognizing Over-Reliance on Testing

A group representing suburban and large county school districts is praising U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for his comments sympathizing with teachers and principals about the heavy emphasis that is being placed on standardized testing in the nation's schools—a push that he says is "sucking the oxygen" out of the room.

Gwinnett County Public Schools Superintendent J. Alvin Wilbanks, and Montgomery County Public Schools Superintendent Joshua P. Starr, the co-chairs of the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium, which represents 16 school districts across the country, said they agreed with Duncan that there is too much focus on testing in education, and they hear it from all sides—from parents, teachers, and students.

"We also agree with the secretary that meaningful assessments are a critical part of good teaching and learning—but only if the tests are valid measures of what students know and are able to do and accountability measures are focused on fostering improvement," they wrote in a statement issued over the weekend.  "With so much change happening in education, we need to take the time to get things right and that means reducing the pressure of high-stakes tests."

"We have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to improve education, with new, rigorous standards and the development of stronger curricula and assessments to raise the level of instruction in our country," they continued. "But to take full advantage of this opportunity, we must give our teachers and school leaders the time they need to implement the standards and prepare students for success." 

Wilbanks and Starr were referring to comments the education secretary wrote in a blog post entitled, "A Back-to-School Conversation with Teachers and School Leaders," on the Education Department's website, which was first published on SmartBlog on Education. In the post, Duncan bluntly writes about hard conversations that he's had with teachers and other educators, particularly those dealing with standardized testing. 

It's not that teachers are against testing or against being held accountable, he said; there is simply too much emphasis on it—and too much of it.

Duncan said he agreed with some educators' comments that it was unfair to hold them accountable for results on new assessments, which many of them had not seen before; that the tests focus too much on basic skills and not enough on critical thinking skills; and that testing—and by extension preparation for those tests—was eating way too much time in the day. 

Duncan agreed that there should be measures of progress for teachers and for students, but added that those should be conducted through a "sensible, smart" combination of factors.

"But assessment needs to be done wisely," he wrote. "No school or teacher should look bad because they took on kids with greater challenges. Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone—always on a mix of measures—which could range from classroom observations to family engagement indicators."

He cited Nevada and Delaware as examples of states that employ multiple measures in assessing student growth.

But testing should never be the focus, he continued: 

Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students—not just in a few subjects, and not just in academic areas. There's a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students' success. No test will ever measure what a student is or can be. It's simply one  measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools—oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards; improved systems for data; better-aligned assessments; teacher professional development, evaluation and support, and more. This is one of the biggest changes education in this country has ever seen, and teachers who've worked through it have told me it's allowed them to become the best teachers they've ever been. That change needs educators' full attention.

The secretary promised to work with states seeking flexibility on using testing as part of teacher evaluations and promised to work with educators to "get this right."

The Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium called for collaborative efforts to devise better ways to measure student learning and to hold educators accountable. 

The group also used the opportunity to call for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act to align both state and federal accountability systems with "the skills and knowledge that students will need to be successful in the 21st century."

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