What will Obama’s new testing plan mean for American students?

President Obama on Saturday called on states to cut back on standardized testing for U.S. school kids, who, on average, take eight of them every year, from pre-K through 12th grade every year. The Obama administration also released a testing action plan with new guidelines. Kate Zernike of The New York Times joins William Brangham to discuss.

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    President Obama and the federal Department of Education are calling on states to cut back on standardized tests in schools. U.S. school kids from pre-K through 12th grade, on average, take eight standardized tests every year. That's almost one test a month during the school year.

    In a Facebook video yesterday, the president said teachers have told him the pressure to teach to those tests — quote — "takes the joy out of teaching and learning."

    His administration has now released a testing action plan with new guidelines.

    For more insight on that, I'm joined by Kate Zernike of The New York Times.


  • KATE ZERNIKE, National Correspondent, The New York Times:

    Thank you.


    So, this is a pretty big statement from the president on this very contentious issue. Why — why is he coming out now?


    Well, I think they wanted to get past the spring testing push last year, or this — or this year.

    But I think, also, there was a report coming out from the Council of the Great City Schools, which is a coalition of about 70 urban school districts. And they have generally been pro-testing. But their superintendent set out to find out how many tests the kids are taking.

    And what they found, the report also came out yesterday — or Saturday — was that there are just are — that, as you said, there are, you know, eight tests a year. There's just so many — so many people are calling for so many different tests, that a lot of these tests are — they're not only onerous, but they're sort of pointless and purposeless. They're not really tied to what we want them to be tied to, to learning in the classroom.


    So, the president acknowledges maybe we have too — testing kids too much. He even acknowledges that his administration might be part of the problem.

    What is he proposing as a possible solution to that?


    Well, I think the thing that is going to jump out at people is this — he wants a cap on the time spent on testing. So, no more than 2 percent of classroom time should be spent on testing.

    And that is a reduction from what the Council of the Great City Schools found. But they also are proposing things like not — they're saying no one — no teacher should be evaluated solely on a test, no child should be — no child's high school graduation or any cutoff should be attached solely to a test. So, that is a big deal.

    A lot of proponents of testing will say that the thing that got us in trouble, they wanted testing. The problem is, we started tying it to too many things. We started saying, teachers weren't going to get tenure if they didn't pass a test, or, if their kids didn't pass the test, school — kids wouldn't graduate from high school if they didn't pass the test.


    So, those advocates of testing say, OK, maybe a little bit of reform is useful, but don't throw the baby out with the bath water.



    I mean, we have to remember that before — this has sort of been a 20-year approach, or a 15-year approach. Before this was happening, there was a lot of — a lot of kids, and particularly in urban schools, were not learning anything.

    And so — they're not learning anything may have been a little too harsh, but that there was no — there was no accountability, and we had no standards, and we weren't — they were just being passed from grade to grade. So, this was really an effort to make sure that we were — that we had some accountability.

    This is a $600 billion industry, public schooling in America. It is reasonable to expect that we would want some accountability, but I think the problem is, we have just — as in many things, the pendulum has swung too far.


    This is obviously a huge, contentious issue across the country. A lot of parents and school districts have been in a real uproar over this testing.

    Do you think this effort by the president, this initiative, is going to put a — is going to satisfy the critics?


    You know, I really don't think it is. I think a lot of people are already saying this is too — too little too late.

    You know, the question really has been in suburban districts, where people felt like, our schools are fine. Why is there this push? We are doing everything fine. This is not our problem.

    The opt-out movement that we have seen has largely been in suburban districts. We have — we have seen very few opt-outs in urban districts.

    So, I think it's going to be — the other problem is going to be, they're saying, we want this 2 percent cap on testing, but then what kind of tests are we going to be allowed to use? There has always been a problem — schooling in this country is a very, very local tradition.

    And so is the — is the federal government going to way, well, you should use this test or you shouldn't use that test? That is the problem. It's going to be — we are going to see this again. People will call it a federal takeover.


    All right, Kate Zernike of The New York Times, thank you so much.


    Thank you.

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