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Six years on, Arne Duncan says we’re testing kids too much

October 26, 2015 at 6:45 PM EDT
Standardized testing in schools has gotten out of hand, according to the Obama administration. After being supportive of testing and assessment, the White House has reversed policy and now recommends capping testing at 2 percent of class time. Gwen Ifill sits down with Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Michael Casserly of the Council of Great City Schools.
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GWEN IFILL: When it comes to standardized testing in schools, how much is too much?

In a policy reversal, the Obama administration, which has supported student and teacher assessment, now says testing has gotten out of hand. This weekend, the White House recommended capping testing at 2 percent of class time.

A new report conducted by the Council of Great City Schools found the average student sits for as many as 112 mandatory standardized tests between kindergarten and high school graduation.

Earlier today, I sat down with the outgoing education secretary, Arne Duncan, and Michael Casserly, the executive director of the Council of Great City Schools, about the problem and the proposed solutions.

Mr. Casserly, Secretary Duncan, thank you very much for joining us.

Secretary Duncan, you first started talking about the inadequacies of testing and the shortfalls, the flaws two, three years ago. What took so long for the Education Department to embrace this idea today?

ARNE DUNCAN, Education Secretary: Well, I think we have embraced this idea for a while.

What’s different now is we actually have data. And I have been talking about this, as you know, for a while, and the president has. But what we had were lots of anecdotes. And we knew we needed to get to a better spot, but no one had ever surveyed the nation.

So, I went to Mike about two years ago and said, would you be willing to ask your districts what to do in this space? And he was ahead of me. He said, guess what? We’re already doing it.

And it’s taken them two years. It’s that complicated to get together. But now we’re beyond anecdotes. We have facts, and where there is too much time spent on testing, a redundancy or duplicative stuff, that doesn’t make any sense. And we both want high standards. We both want good assessments that drive instruction.

But where we’re wasting students time, where we’re adding stress, we need to challenge that status quo. And that’s exactly what we’re trying to do.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Casserly, some people have already said that the solution is not the solution. The federal government saying you should put this cap on testing is not the solution to the overtesting that started in the first place.

MICHAEL CASSERLY, Council of Great City Schools: Well, I actually agree with that.

I think this is a very complicated issue. It involves the time that’s devoted to testing. It involves the quality of the test. It involves the redundancy of the test. It involves the use of the test. It involves all kinds of pretty complicated factors.

You might solve a little bit of the time problem by putting a time cap on this, but you could also do damage at the same time if you don’t address some of those other questions. So if you lowered the cap to, say, 1 percent, you could still have redundancy in the test, and you could still have bad tests. There may be less of them. But you haven’t solved the larger problem.

GWEN IFILL: So, how do you guard against unintended consequences, as happened from the testing?

MICHAEL CASSERLY: Well, I think one of the things that all of us have to do now is to have a more thoughtful conversation about what smart assessments would actually be and see if we can figure out some way to coordinate this a lot better across federal, state and local entities.

One of the things that was really clear to us from the research that we did on this was that these entities don’t necessarily talk to each other. These layers of the education apparatus don’t necessarily talk to each other. So we have plenty of examples where people were administering overlapping tests, and kids were actually toggling back and forth from one test to another, when it could have been solved by just having differing layers of government talk to each other a little bit better.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Duncan, government talking to each other is not necessarily what government does best. In fact, there are people who say that part of the overtesting was a result of people trying to meet standards that you were promoting, Race to the Top, Common Core standards, and, as a result, you kept layering one test on top of the other.

Do you feel that you might have some responsibility for that?

ARNE DUNCAN: Oh, no, I think we all do.

And I think, Gwen, what has been so — what I have appreciated so much is, this is — honestly, this is real leadership in action. This is our major urban school districts coming together and saying we need to do better. This is the state chief officers coming together with us saying we need to do better. And it’s us being self-reflective and looking in the mirror and say we want to do better together.

And, as you know better than I, so often, in Washington, people just yell and point fingers and they just get louder about I’m right and everyone else is wrong. I think what we’re all trying to do is say, how do we better partner, how do we better advice, how do we get to a better spot for children?

Again, the goal here is not to test. The goal is to improve instruction, to improve what is going on every single day for that child in classroom. And where we’re getting good information to teachers and to parents and to students themselves that empower them to build upon strengths and work on weaknesses, that’s a good thing.

Where we are doing things that are redundant, or duplicative, or not helpful, well, that’s a waste of everyone’s time and energy.

GWEN IFILL: Well, it’s not just Washington. A lot of the movement to opt out of these tests started in local school districts and around the country with parents, with teachers.

How much of that will be satisfied by Washington saying do less?

ARNE DUNCAN: Well, I think there are two sides of this coin, folks who think we just need to do more and more testing. I think that is wrong. Folks who think we shouldn’t do any assessments, that’s equally wrong.

And there is a commonsense middle ground here. This is very much a civil rights issue. Historically in this nation, we swept under the rug the horrific disparities in outcomes, the horrific achievement gap between black and white students and Latino and white students and poor students and wealthier students. Too much testing is bad. Walking away from assessment is equally bad.

But let’s find the commonsense middle ground. I think that’s what we’re all striving to do and to do together.

GWEN IFILL: It doesn’t sound like you have figured out where that sweet spot is, Mr. Casserly.

MICHAEL CASSERLY: No, we really haven’t.

And part of our goal here was just to gather some data on how much testing was actually done. We haven’t figured out the right balance yet. We did announce today that the Council of Great City Schools, in coordination with Council of Chief State School Officers, would form a commission to start looking at exactly what the right balance would be, what would models and options for school districts be that would present a much more rational and intelligent assessment system.

GWEN IFILL: In the meantime, there has been a huge, I would say, explosion of a business model which is based on testing. Don’t you anticipate pushback from those companies who have been behind a lot of these tests?

MICHAEL CASSERLY: oh, I think the answer to that is, yes, of course we do. We’re not naive about this and we certainly don’t think that just because we put out some data about how much testing it is that all of a sudden the test publishers are going to go, oh, gee, heavens, I never knew, we should stop selling these tests.

I don’t believe that for a second. But I do think that, in cooperation with the federal government, the Department of Education, the states and the big urban public school systems, that we can at least start creating a more intelligent conversation about what it is we buy.

ARNE DUNCAN: Gwen, if I could add, I think it’s just so important part of the conversation is on the amount, and that’s an important conversation to have, but that’s maybe half of the battle here.

The big thing that we have to get to is, are these assessments high-quality? And so, for example, if folks just cut back testing and they go to fill-in-the-bubble tests, that would be a disaster. We want writing to be assessed. That takes a little time. We want critical thinking to be assessed, and so making sure that there are high-quality assessments that are available in real time, the results, to teachers, to parents, to students, so that, again, instruction improves on a daily, on a weekly basis.

GWEN IFILL: How do you measure effectiveness? That’s the other piece of this. It’s one thing to have quality. It’s another thing to have quantity.

But then you have to be able to measure that learning has actually approved. And that’s been the defense which testers have used, which is we need to have that basic line.

ARNE DUNCAN: I think the world is changing and it’s really important.

Historically, Gwen, as you know, you had 50 different states doing 50 different tests, which you couldn’t compare and frankly cost a heck of a lot more money because everyone was doing their own thing. And what you now have, again, thanks to Mike’s leadership and the state chief officers and others’ leadership, governors’ leadership, is you have more and more states starting to work together.

And so the real key in all this, Gwen, is how do we accelerate the pace of change? Who is doing a fantastic job with English-language learners? Who is doing a great job in rural communities, or in inner-city communities, or in Native American reservations and how do we replicate and share what is working and scale those best practices?

GWEN IFILL: And you think it can be effective?

ARNE DUNCAN: I know it can be effective.

And I visit schools all — probably more schools than almost anybody across 50 states and I see extraordinary work. We met with two teachers earlier today who talked about how the data they’re getting is helping them not to teach to 25 or 30 students in aggregate, but to teach individually, personalized way — in a personalized way to every single child and help them get to where they need to go.

So, a lot of learning to do going forward, but great assessments actually improve instruction, drive right teaching and learning, are not in conflict with it. We just have to make that more the norm and not the exception.

GWEN IFILL: Secretary Arne Duncan, Michael Casserly, thank you both very much.

MICHAEL CASSERLY: Thank you.

ARNE DUNCAN: Thank you.

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