By Anthony Cody.

Yesterday President Obama surprised us all by once again speaking out against standardized tests. In his speech, he spoke of the true role of education, to uplift and inspire. He said,

When I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test. What I remember is the way they taught me to believe in myself, to be curious about the world, to take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential. To inspire me. To open up a window into parts of the world that I had never thought of before. That’s what good teaching is. That’s what a great education is.

He offered three principles that tests ought to fulfill in order to be worthwhile.

First, our kids should only take tests that are worth taking. Tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction, and make sure everybody’s on track.

Second, tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time. Or crowd out teaching and learning. Tests should enhance teaching and learning.

And third, tests should be just one source of information, used alongside classroom work, and surveys, and other factors, to give us an all around look at how our students and our schools are doing.

Sadly, there is very little connection between the inspirational view of education offered in his opening, the three principles he provides, and the policies his administration has created.

There has yet to be a standardized test that has proven itself to be “aimed at good instruction.” These tests do not enhance instruction. If they did, parents, teachers and students would not be protesting them.

The idea that tests will serve only one source of information among many is hollow, because in practice, they are the primary source that is used for high stakes decisions, such as student placement, teacher evaluations and school accountability.

Why does this sound so familiar?

Let me take you back to 2011. President Obama was in a town hall meeting, when a student named Luis Zeyala asked why students were being burdened with so many tests. President Obama responded:

… we have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at.

Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well. Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.

Then he said something really radical.

So what I want to do is—one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.

After I pointed out that this stance was not in line with his own administration’s test-promoting policies, the Department of Education responded, telling me I was wrong. After a bit of back and forth, their spokesperson, Justin Hamilton, agreed to answer some questions from me. Back in 2011, we were hearing responses very similar to what we heard yesterday. Tests need to be higher quality, and should be only one of multiple measures, and that the Department of Education was all about “flexibility,” so long as a significant part of teacher evaluations was based on test scores.

So in 2011, as we know now, we got doubletalk about tests. Are things any different this time?

Let’s look at what the statement from the Department of Education actually says.

In too many schools, there is unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students, consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students. The Administration bears some of the responsibility for this, and we are committed to being part of the solution.

No one set out to create situations where students spend too much time taking standardized tests or where tests are redundant or fail to provide useful information. Nevertheless, these problems are occurring in many places—unintended effects of policies that have aimed to provide more useful information to educators, families, students, and policymakers and to ensure attention to the learning progress of low-income and minority students, English learners, students with disabilities, and members of other groups that have been traditionally underserved. These aims are right, but support in implementing them well has been inadequate, including from this Administration. We have focused on encouraging states to take on these challenges and to provide them with flexibility. One of the results of this approach is that we have not provided clear enough assistance for how to thoughtfully approach testing and assessment.

So let’s be clear about what these paragons of accountability are taking responsibility for. They “bear some of the responsibility” for these all-consuming  tests. However, “No one set out to create” these situations. In fact, in the final analysis, their main error was that did not “provide clear enough assistance”!

Isn’t this incredible? Their biggest mistake was in not telling states and districts exactly what to do, and in the absence of this clear direction from on high, these dimwits imposed too many tests, creating this mess we are in.

I feel as if I may go blind reading the fine print about the various forms of “flexibility” they claim to be offering (along with ever clearer directions on how to thoughtfully approach testing). So let’s focus on the places that have supposedly taken advantage of this flexibility, doing what ought to be done, according to the Department of Ed. First on their list? New York! Here is what they say they have done:

  • New York has worked to limit the amount of time students spend on required state- and district-level standardized tests – no more than 1 percent of instructional time for state- required standardized tests, and 1 percent for locally required standardized tests. To support this work, New York also established a “Teaching is the Core” competitive grant which supported teams of administrators and teachers in reviewing all assessments given, eliminating unnecessary ones, and improving the quality of assessments by making them more performance-based.

If New York is a model of successful limits on testing, we can see where this whole conversation is taking us. Common Core-aligned tests in that state continue to label 70% of its students below proficient. Furthermore, New York requires that 50% of a teacher’s evaluation be based on standardized test scores. This spring, the state was hit by more opt outs than any other. Parents and students there are not ready to celebrate.

Another state cited as a model was New Mexico:

  • Since 2010, New Mexico has successfully decreased overall state-mandated testing time across all grades by an average of 30 minutes per year with some grades seeing reductions of more than three hours. The state accomplished this while moving to implement assessments aligned with more rigorous standards; and, today, less than 2 percent of the school year is dedicated to state-mandated testing. The state is also partnering with districts to examine local practices and to reduce duplicative testing.iv

I asked some teachers in New Mexico for a reality check, and this is what I was told:

That’s some serious BS! Our testing has increased. Between ESL tests, PSATs, PARRC, SAT/ACT attempts, Discovery/CBMs/MAPS, EOCs, possibly AP exams, and required tests for Special Education, our NM students are always testing. Asking them to take a classroom test is like pulling teeth now.

Another New Mexico teacher states,

2010 is when Susana Martinez was elected. And since then, she added RIAs, (Riverside Interim Assessments EOCs, and last year’s PARCC lunacy. This isn’t messaging, it’s a LIE!!

(See the list of 19 End of Course exams required in New Mexico, and this school newspaper from 2014 for an overview of required tests.)

We also need to keep in mind that the percent of the school year spent taking tests is NOT the most critical issue. Even more important than the time wasted is the stakes attached to the scores these tests yield. When tests are used for high stakes purposes, they put intense pressure on teachers and students to focus on test preparation.

Last year, this blog hosted a guest post from Yong Zhao, which took issue with Marc Tucker’s proposal to limit high stakes tests to three during a K-12 student’s schooling. Zhao wrote:

Only three times may not sound much, but as long as the stakes are high, especially for students, it’s more than enough to do the damage. As I have written in my latest book Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System, China technically has two high stakes tests for students (for entrance to high school at grade 9 and one for college entrance at grade 12) but these two tests turn all educational practices of students, parents, teachers, and schools into test-preparation, resulting in the widely observed damages because as Anthony Cody wrote: “these tests have such huge stakes attached to them, the entire system revolves around them, and students’ lives and family incomes are spent on constant test preparation, in and out of school.”

All the lofty principles we heard for what tests ought to be and do tell us two things. First, President Obama remains unaware of the very limited educational value of standardized tests, and second, the administration remains absolutely committed to tests playing a key role in America’s classrooms. As some have pointed out, now that the PARCC and SBAC tests are here, and have plainly failed to deliver on Duncan’s 2010 promise that they would measure creativity and critical thinking so much better than any previous test, now we are looking forward to the NEXT generation of tests, which will be “competency-based.” Cue the test vendors for another multi-million dollar development project.

No matter how bad the current tests are, the new and better tests are always just around the corner. And anyone who dares to question this optimistic projection is a Luddite afraid of accountability.

Perhaps with an election in the offing, the Democrats feel the need to show evidence “they are listening.” But this supposed adjustment is more in the tradition of Taylorist management we have grown accustomed to. Tighten the controls on everyone until they start screaming, then loosen up just enough to stay firmly in charge. Whether students spend one percent or three percent of their time taking tests, if those tests determine their fate and that of their teachers, then schools will have little choice but to focus on test prep. And of course the Department of Ed would have schools toss out their “low quality” local assessments while making sure those aligned with Common Core remain in place.

If we want students to learn, as President Obama did, “to believe in myself, to be curious about the world, to take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential,” then we need to toss the whole high stakes testing accountability system out, lock, stock and barrel.

What do you think? Is there a real course adjustment underway? Or is this just more double-talk?


Anthony Cody
Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody worked in the high poverty schools of Oakland, California, for 24 years, 18 of them as a middle school science teacher. He was one of the organizers of the Save Our Schools March in Washington, DC in 2011 and he is a founding member of The Network for Public Education. A graduate of UC Berkeley and San Jose State University, he now lives in Mendocino County, California.


  1. Craig-Michael F. Kierce    

    Anthony Cody, spot on. Excellent job…and this teacher thanks you. Thirty years in, hopefully thirty more. Yes, my children in school are that great.

  2. Marian Cruz    

    this testing frenzy caused teachers and students much unnecessary strife. Will those that promoted this be held responsible?

  3. Dale Lidicker    

    The idea that we are reducing testing is Orwellian doublespeak. In Colorado, we have not even gotten PARCC results from last year yet. All of this “useful” testing information is being quarantined in some mysterious databank somewhere and nearly a third of the present school year has whisked by… So much for using this precious data to guide instruction. I imagine Mr. Murdoch is lining his pockets with all of America’s taxpayer dollars while he smiles all the way to the bank… So annoying…

  4. Don Corley    

    Unfortunately, based on the horrible history of this administration, I don’t trust that these words will lead to any significant change.

    I worry that one theory being put forward – that this is a precursor to eliminating state control of testing and replacing it with outside vendors – thus allowing the private sector to profit further off of our children. The next logical step after that would be to simply put educational software directly into the hands of students, eliminating the need for teachers completely.

    This sounds more in line with this administration, considering its actions up to this point. It’s tough to imagine the skunk losing its stripe so abruptly!

  5. geauxteacher    

    Beware of Greeks (and politicians) bearing gifts.

  6. Ken McGrew    

    This is typical Obama triangulation, say somethign to appease the public, especially the left, but do the opposite, or otherwise do nothing. This is the same president who admonished teachers in 2012 to “stop teaching to the test” even as he pushed policy that result in overtesting. There are numerous problems with the carefully worded statement coming from the President, including this open letter, that indicate that this is likely more double speak. For example, calling for less time spent on testing will do nothing to curtail the amount of time teaching for the high stakes tests, and in fact having fewer tests with the same unfair consequences for teachers may actually increase the amount of time spent memorizing empty nuggets of information to pass the high stakes testing remains. Would it be too cynical to note the timing of these statements by the President coincide with the National Education Assoication’s early endorsement of Clinton despite widespread opposition from teachers?

    The debate over how much testing is too much testing distracts from more important questions about what real teaching and learning looks like. The underlying problem is not that we have too much testing, or that the consequences to hard working teachers are so unfair and demoralizing, but that we are told that there is only one way of educating, what educational philosopher Paulo Freire desparagingly called the “banking concept of education,” in which teachers deposit knowldege out of context into students who must perform rituals of regurgitating that memorized content knowledge to prove that they are adequately conforming to authority. So long as we teach in the same mind numbingly borring and hollow manner we will have burn out, among students and teachers, and drop outs. Even students who do well in this system are miserable. Less of the same poison won’t solve the problem. If the President is serious about students learning “life’s most important lessons” with a sense of joy then he would must have the courage to turn his back on the corporate interests in education, call for changing our entire approach to education, and push quickly for policy changes that would make such change more than empty rhetoric.

    I am trying to refocus the conversation on an alternative approaches to teaching and learning that will actually foster a love of learning and help to produce active democratic citizens, and these are the tradition of progressive education and critical education. Hands on learning, field trips, projects, reading circles are all activities that come out of the progressive education tradition. Students learning content knowledge in the process of engaging in community service is an example of activities that come out of the critical education tradition. Imagine engaged students improving their skills in reading, writing, math, science, and social studies in the process of learning about the challenges we face as a society and world community, and then learning the democratic tools of making actual change, in an age appropriate manner. These classrooms used to be a growing trend in the United States before WWII and continue to exist in a small number of mostly private schools.

    We know what the proven alternative is. But the President isn’t mentioning that. Despite his rhetoric to the contrary, his real agenda is to continue the corporate take over of public education, in a banking model, even while he assures us that we can somehow foster love of learning and creativity in an educational system built on memorization rituals and blaming teachers for the concequences of inequality and poverty. Remember the wise warnings of Mr. Chuck D.: “Beware of the hand when it’s comin’ fromt eh left” and “Don’t believe the hype.”

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