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Little Action Required by Obama’s Testing Action Plan

Welcome back, dear readers. I apologize for leaving you mostly adrift for a week as I gallivanted around various education reform conferences. At least you got a good post about the coming local elections yesterday, and you’ve got another big one in store for today.

A national story popped up this past weekend that I really should address: After many moons supporting testing and test-linked accountability (often through questionably coercive waivers), the Obama Administration has released a new “Testing Action Plan” calling for some course alterations when it comes to testing in America. That plan comes with the blessing of testing and accountability proponent Arne Duncan, who will be stepping down as U.S. Secretary of Education in December. John King of New York will take his place.

Obviously, the administration’s movement was well received by opponents of standardized testing and tying student data to teacher evaluations. That includes horn-tooting statements from both NEA and AFT hailing the administration and reasserting that testing and test-based accountability are bad, bad things. I’m still pretty sure the unions’ position has something to do with tenure reform and an effort to cling to outdated steps-and-columns pay structures, but what do I know?

But what does the Testing Action Plan really say? For us here in Colorado, not much. Chalkbeat’s Todd Engdahl put together a great article evaluating exactly how much difference the administration’s loose suggestions stand to make in our state. You should definitely give the full article a read, but for now let’s just take a look at a couple of the more salient points.

First, the Testing Action Plan says that statewide standardized testing shouldn’t exceed two percent of classroom time. That seems pretty reasonable, right? Sure, right up until you realize that the Colorado Department of Education says two percent of classroom time is about 21 hours a year. Eek! No need to panic, though; Colorado is already well below that threshold for statewide assessments. Check out this CDE chart:

All told, CDE says a typical student can expect to spend about 1.5 percent of total instructional time taking statewide summative assessments this school year. Sure, that figure does not include the myriad district- and school-level tests that also consume a good chunk of time for students. But then again, the state has no control over those.

Second, the Testing Action Plan calls for assessments to be but one measure among many when it comes to evaluating teachers and schools. That sounds pretty similar to language in our Colorado’s SB 191, which (despite numerous implementation delays) requires 50 percent of educator evaluations to be pegged to “multiple measures” of student learning. State assessment results have to be included somewhere in that pie for teachers in tested subjects, but districts are given wide latitude when it comes to picking which other measures should be included, and how those measures should be weighted within the 50 percent of evaluations filled in by student learning data.

We all know that no one measure (including the subjective measures that have long led to nearly every teacher being rated effective) provides a perfect picture of an educator’s work. But there’s strong research showing that smartly applying multiple measures can and does allow us to accurately triangulate a teacher’s performance. There’s very good reason to believe this can be done scientifically and credibly. And there’s even better reason to want to do it; replacing a single bad teacher with an average one can raise a classroom’s lifetime earnings by an estimated $267,000 dollars.

But I digress. The plan also calls for assessment information to be provided to parents (kind of like HB 1323’s assessment calendar requirement), better peer-review processes, more educator involvement in the review and evaluation of local assessments, and continued investigation in the realm of new testing models. It even says that the Department of Education is willing to entertain waivers for innovative pilot programs like the one in New Hampshire, which bodes well for Colorado’s shot at getting the waiver necessary to push ahead with the pilot outlined in last year’s testing legislation.

All good stuff, to be sure. But on first read, none of the specific recommendations look to require much “action” at all here in Colorado. I suspect that’s probably the case in many other states, as well. That begs an obvious question: Why did the administration put this statement out?

I’m sure some of it has to do with complaints from parents and teachers, but remember: President Obama cannot seek reelection. Arne Duncan is already stepping down. This is not a time you would normally expect to see people making PR concessions on positions they’ve held for years.

The cynical side of me is inclined to say that all of this may have something to with mending fences with the teachers unions as Democrats push toward 2016. Then again, I’m hardly a political expert at five years old. See you next time!