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Critics say Obama's call for less standardized testing is 'toothless'

Administration's call for schools to stop standardized testing overkill needs to be followed with action, activists say

The Obama administration has billed a new “testing action plan” as an important first step toward ending a destructive focus on standardized test scores at many U.S. schools, but some education activists say the plan may make no difference.

Monty Neill, executive director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, or FairTest, said the president’s call for less testing is, in itself, “totally toothless.”

If President Barack Obama and outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan were serious about reducing the excessive focus on standardized exams, Neill said, they could do so easily by amending federal rules that the majority of states follow as an alternative to the No Child Left Behind law.

These rules require states to base evaluations of teachers in part on students’ test scores, and to impose certain mandated sanctions on schools where scores fall short. The sanctions can include firing large numbers of school staff, closing the school or turning it over to a charter-school operator.

“The Obama administration with the stroke of a pen could eliminate” these rules through a change in Department of Education policies, Neill said.

With standardized tests carrying such stakes, schools naturally put their focus on student scores, said Carol Burris, a former high school principal in New York state who is now with the national Network for Public Education Fund, which opposes excessive testing.

“The high-stakes nature of the tests is putting tremendous pressure on students and the adults that work in schools, and it’s paralyzing,” Burris said.

The U.S. Department of Education’s testing action plan said the administration will publish guidance to states on testing by January. The announcement was tied to the release of a study by the Council of the Great City Schools, a Washington-based organization that focuses on urban school districts, finding that public schools spend too much time on testing.

Educators, parents and others concerned about an overemphasis on testing say it leads teachers and principals to sacrifice arts, music, social studies — almost anything other than the reading and math skills that are the key subjects of most standardized exams. Poor students often suffer most, advocates say, as their schools are more likely to have low scores that put the schools under threat of sanctions.

Burris said one of the administration’s proposed solutions — to limit testing to 2 percent of a student’s school year — falls far short.

“Two percent for the average student is nearly 24 hours of testing,” Burris said, noting that the average school year is 180 days at 6.64 hours per day.

Taking the SAT standardized college admission test, by contrast, requires about three hours and 45 minutes, and prospective doctors taking the Medical College Admission Test, or MCAT, can expect to sit for the recently lengthened test for about seven and a half hours.

“Two percent sounds like a tiny amount until you compare it with the actual tests that adults take,” Burris said.

U.S. schools are required to give students standardized tests starting in 3rd grade, and the Great City Schools study found that testing for 4-year-olds in prekindergarten is common.

Bernie Horn, who serves as a senior advisor to the nonprofit Public Leadership Institute and who is concerned about over-testing in schools, said it is understandable that many have greeted the administration’s recent pronouncements with skepticism.

But he said that “the first step in correcting something is admitting a mistake has been made.” He called the Obama administration’s recent acknowledgement of the problem of testing overkill “a pretty high-profile admission that … [the administration] is responsible.”

The federal guidance expected by January will show whether substantive change in high-stakes testing is likely, he said.

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