I apologize to you, dear readers, in advance, but I must ask you to read the latest balderdash written by someone who works for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. From my days working in the U.S. Department of Education in 1991-93, I know full well that Cabinet Secretaries have several writers and don’t actually write anything themselves. Okay, so this latest statement from Duncan says that there is too much emphasis on testing. Testing is taking the joy out of teaching. It is sucking the oxygen out of the nation’s classrooms. Nowhere does he acknowledge that his very own Race to the Top demanded more high-stakes testing, demanded that teachers’ evaluations depend on the test scores of their students. Nowhere does he acknowledge his cheerleading for VAM–value-added measurement–or his hearty congratulations to the Los Angeles Times when it published the ratings of teachers based on the test scores of their students. Over the past five years, we have learned that what Arne says bears little relation to what he does. In the same breath, as this statement shows, he is both for and against testing. He seems not to see the connection between toxic testing and the policies he has put in place.
Fortunately, two of our best thinkers have written excellent responses to the new Duncan line on testing.
Anthony Cody says that Duncan is responding to the call of Gates for a moratorium (the point is illustrated by an old advertisement for a phonograph that said “his master’s voice”). He also believes the new tack is Duncan’s response to polls that show a decline in support for the Common Core. Cody points out that the most onerous demands for high-stakes testing were initiated by Arne Duncan. What is Duncan really offering, asks Cody: a one-year moratorium on the punishments attached to testing.
“But a one year deferral does not do much to fundamentally alter the systemic change that is under way. The new Common Core tests are still being rolled out and will be given this coming spring. This only amounts to a one year delay to the time when those scores will be used for evaluative purposes.
“Duncan makes it clear that the purpose of this delay is to allow for a successful transition to the new standards, testing and evaluation systems. There is actually no real change in any of the substance of any of these programs, and he reiterates the Department’s commitment to the new tests.
“If Duncan is serious in his concern about tests are “sucking the oxygen” out of schools, he should begin to listen to teachers when they tell him to stop using these tests for their evaluations and to close schools. Until then, test scores will continue to rob children of the vital learning environments they need, and teachers will continue to object.”
Peter Greene also has a withering analysis of Duncan’s new line on testing.
“Duncan is shocked– shocked!!– that anyone would think it’s a good idea to make a high stakes test the measure of student achievement or teacher effectiveness. “Growth is what matters. No teacher or school should be judged on any one test, or tests alone –” And here comes the vertiginous woozies (dibs on this as a band name) again, because that would be a heartening quote if it did not come from the very same office which decreed that by order of the federal government high stakes tests must be used as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness. Duncan is talking about this test-based evaluation of students and teachers as if it just spontaneously occurred, like some sort of weird virus suddenly passed around at state ed department sleepover camp, and not a rule that Duncan’s office demanded everyone follow. Has Duncan forgotten that he just made the entire state of Washington declare itself a Failing School Disaster Zone precisely because they refused to use high stakes tests as a measure of student achievement and teacher effectiveness?”
And Greene adds:
“As far as Duncan’s other concerns go– a year will not matter. Much of what he decries is the direct result of making the stakes of these tests extremely high. Student success, teacher careers, school existence all ride on The Test. As long as they do, it is absurd to imagine that The Test will not dominate the school landscape. And that domination is only made worse by the many VAMtastic faux formulas in circulation.
[Says Duncan: Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.]
Oh, the woozies. Duncan’s office needs to do one thing, and one thing only– remove the huge stakes from The Test. Don’t use it to judge students, don’t use it to judge teachers, don’t use it to judge schools and districts. It’s that attachment of huge stakes– not any innate qualities of The Test itself– that has created the test-drive joy-sucking school-deadening culture that Duncan both creates and criticizes. If the department doesn’t address tat, it will not matter whether we wait one year or ten– the results will be the same.