Duncan admits flaws in current standardized testing

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. Photo by Ralph Alswang

SAN FRANCISCO – Secretary of Education Arne Duncan acknowledged serious flaws in the standardized tests that currently drive American schools, telling an audience of education researchers on Tuesday that the tests are an inadequate gauge of student and teacher performance.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Educational Research Association, Duncan criticized “high-stakes testing where children’s lives or teachers’ careers are based on one test,” but he said that abandoning standardized testing was not the answer. He listed a series of misguided uses of standardized tests, mentioning a school in Florida that evaluated teachers in kindergarten through second grade based on how students performed in third and fourth grade, and a school in Memphis that evaluated art teachers based on student scores in math and English.

“The solution to mediocre tests is not to abandon assessment,” Duncan said. “Instead we’re supporting much better assessment.” Duncan called for “assessment 2.0,” which would provide timely evaluation of student performance in areas beyond reading and math, including science, advanced class work, and career readiness.

His remarks surprised the somewhat contentious audience of researchers, about a dozen of whom carried signs that read “Not in my name” or “Erase to the top” – a reference to cheating on standardized tests – to protest Duncan’s appearance at the conference and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top education program, the competitive grants initiative for education innovation. California has received just $50 million from the $4.3 billion fund.

“Sir, Race to the Top is no less than No Child Left Behind on steroids,” said an audience member in a question-and-answer session after the secretary’s talk.

Duncan had blamed the current testing ills on former President Bush’s No Child Left Behind program, but the audience member said the Race to the Top program had the same pitfalls. “The superintendents I speak to, the people I speak to, say this is a high stakes testing regime that is suffocating them,” said the educator.

Duncan acknowledged the speaker’s concerns, but he said that teachers wanted the meaningful assessment tools that he hoped would result from a Race to the Top competition to improve assessment.

Duncan also acknowledged that the introduction of the new Common Core standards, as well as new assessment tools, are going to create “a couple of choppy years” for schools. He said he had been talking at length with educators, including Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, about how to help schools navigate the change. “We’re trying to be very, very thoughtful about it. … When we get to the other side, I think the country will be in a radically better place, but we have to get there.”

When an audience member asked if Duncan would consider a moratorium on standardized testing until teachers get up to speed on the Common Core and the assessment tools prove to be effective, Duncan said, “We understand this is a difficult tough time of transition. We’re spending a huge amount of time listening to ideas about how to do it.”

Duncan returned several times to the theme that the current testing system isn’t working. “Schools today give a lot of tests, sometimes too many,” he said. “It’s a serious problem that students in this formative time aren’t getting the support they need through authentic assessment.”

He added, “It’s heartbreaking to hear students identify themselves as ‘below basic’ or ‘I’m a one.’ Not enough is being done to track student growth with high-quality formative assessment.” And he said standardized tests “certainly don’t measure qualities of great teaching, the ability to give individual instruction, to collaborate, to inspire a lifelong love of learning.”

Duncan is making several speeches in a tour around the Bay Area this week. Earlier Tuesday, he visited the Cross Cultural Family Center child care program in San Francisco to talk about early childhood learning. He is scheduled to appear Wednesday with Rep. Mike Honda, D-San Jose, at Fremont High School in Sunnyvale to launch a new effort to improve early education, before going on a series of site visits. And Thursday, Duncan will speak at the Education Writers Association national conference at Stanford.

Filed under: Common Core, Federal Education Policy, Hot Topics, State Education Policy, Testing and Accountability

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32 Responses to “Duncan admits flaws in current standardized testing”

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  1. Paul Muench on May 3, 2013 at 9:44 am05/3/2013 9:44 am

    • 000

    I just searched the web and found schools that make the policy public.

  2. Ken Previti on May 1, 2013 at 8:14 pm05/1/2013 8:14 pm

    • 000

    Duncan is a hypocrite. What can anyone believe amid the myriad of statements he makes to to appease whatever audience he is addressing at any given time?

  3. Hilary Frambes on May 1, 2013 at 7:32 pm05/1/2013 7:32 pm

    • 000

    “a couple of choppy years”? That’s two years of my kids’ lives he is talking about. Grrrr….


    • Manuel on May 2, 2013 at 9:30 am05/2/2013 9:30 am

      • 000

      Ms. Frambes, you have a choice: opt-out.

      This is the text of California’s Educational Code section 60615:

      “60615. Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a parent’s or
      guardian’s written request to school officials to excuse his or her
      child from any or all parts of the assessments administered pursuant
      to this chapter shall be granted.”

      You don’t have to give any reason whatsoever. Why would you subject your kids’ lives to this roller coaster? Especially when the test scores cannot be used for your kids’ grades only “to provide support to pupils and parents or guardians in order to assist pupils in strengthening their development as learners” [Ed. Code 60607(b)].

      • Paul Muench on May 3, 2013 at 12:54 am05/3/2013 12:54 am

        • 000

        Be careful about abstaining from the test. Some schools use STAR tests for academic placement and GATE classification. In some high schools recommendation letters are conditional on STAR test participation. And some high schools give rewards for student participation which can put students who don’t participate at a disadvantage. I don’t know if any of this has been put to the test of law, but I haven’t heard anyone in the CDE or in our DOJ warning against such sanctions or rewards. And this topic is discussed at length periodically so there’s plenty of opportunity to say something.

        • navigio on May 3, 2013 at 7:55 am05/3/2013 7:55 am

          • 000

          It seems making recommendation letters conditional on CST participation would be illegal. And making GATE placement decisions based on CST results alone would be stupid (independent of the question of whether GATE is meaningful as a program anyway).

        • Manuel on May 3, 2013 at 9:17 am05/3/2013 9:17 am

          • 000

          I guess, Paul, there will have to be a lawsuit one of these days.

          Anyway, GATE classification at LAUSD is usually done on the basis of a test administered by the good folks who deal with IQ issues. Is that the same elsewhere? Indeed, CST scores can help in borderline cases, but that would also invite legal action. Likewise, letters of recommendation held hostage as well as participation on AP tests contingent on STAR participation would cause major problems for the CDE and Legislature.

          It seems as if you actually know of such high schools. Would you consider making the information public? Or would that be to problematic?

          • Paul on May 3, 2013 at 10:20 am05/3/2013 10:20 am

            • 000

            If I were a parent, I’d certainly have my child exempted from STAR testing each year.

            Unfortunately, a gag order prevents me from getting involved, as a teacher. Here is a typical CSBA-based district policy:

            “A parent/guardian may submit to the school a written request to excuse his/her child from any or all parts of any test. District employees may discuss the STAR Program with parents/guardians and may inform them of the availability of exemptions under Education Code 60615. However, the district and its employees shall not solicit or encourage any written exemption request on behalf of any student or group of students. (5 CCR 852)”

            Having been denied access to school letterhead when I wrote a letter of recommendation in support of a student’s private school admission application (never mind that the private school in question, a Catholic school, offers a healthier social environment and a stronger academic program, both appropriate for my student), I can imagine that petty school or district administrators would try to retaliate against families who request exemption from STAR testing. An ethical teacher — provided that she had permanent status (“tenure”) and were not risking her job — would not consider participation in STAR testing when deciding whether to write a letter of recommendation.

      • CarolineSF on May 3, 2013 at 1:09 pm05/3/2013 1:09 pm

        • 000

        Ms. Frambes and her kids may not be in California. This is cyberspace.

        • Manuel on May 3, 2013 at 1:19 pm05/3/2013 1:19 pm

          • 000

          True dat.

          But there is a good possibility that her state may offer the same protections as California does.

          But even if she is not in California, why not put the information out there? Even people active in schools do not know about the opt-out provision. And that is a true story.

          • navigio on May 3, 2013 at 2:00 pm05/3/2013 2:00 pm

            • 000

            In my opinion, the negative impact of testing is not limited to the test itself so opting out is not really any kind of solution, rather merely a statement. But I agree that parents should be aware of the option, if for that reason alone.

  4. Paul on May 1, 2013 at 7:03 pm05/1/2013 7:03 pm

    • 000

    Very well said, Eric.

  5. Eric Becker on May 1, 2013 at 5:25 pm05/1/2013 5:25 pm

    • 000

    The basic problem is the blatant disrespect that people in power have for teachers. We are not professionals because 1)we do not set the standards for licensure 2)we do not create the laws that govern education; and 3)we do not have oversight powers. Therefore, we are incapable of knowing what is best for students. Bill Gates and George Lucas know what is best for students. Exxon-Mobile knows what is best for students. State and federal politicians know what is best for students because most of them have law degrees. Lawyers 1)set the standards for licensure; 2)create the laws that govern the practice of law; and 3) have over-sight powers.

    We are witness to an entire generation of students whose creativity and passion are being crushed by mind numbing drollery.

    Let me teach. You might be surprised by what I can do.

  6. lovereading on May 1, 2013 at 3:48 pm05/1/2013 3:48 pm

    • 000

    In our District in NY State, we spent the past two weeks giving the State Assessments. Now we are doing makeups and taking teachers out of the classrooms to score these tests. Next all of our students will be tested on the DIBELS assessments. Then we will give the Student Learning Objectives Assessments. Then we give the Fountas and Pinnell Individual assessments (which actually give us information we can use)and math unit and summative tests. Then it will be the end of June and school year ends. So…April, May and June testing. When are we supposed to teach?

  7. Manuel on May 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm05/1/2013 2:11 pm

    • 000

    This may seem off-topic to you, but this is what was included in a letter asking for more financial support for Antonio Sanchez, candidate for District 6 of LAUSD:

    “We, at last, have a Superintendent who has the vision and the courage to impose real accountability, to reward those who help the students to succeed, to rehabilitate or remove those who don’t, to evaluate teachers based on the progress of the students, and who will implement 21st century learning tools.”

    This very clearly is an attempt to use testing to bludgeon into submission the teachers to accept whatever Our Overlords want. Arne Duncan is simply another “useful idiot” helping them to achieve this goal.

    What can you do? Support any candidate that pledges to stop this juggernaut. Given that the battle of LAUSD, where they don’t close bad schools, but “reconstitute” them, is very important in this war against public schools, I call on all of you to do what the carpet-baggers have already done: contribute in any way you can to their opponents in the upcoming Board election. Bloomberg has gven more than $1.3 million. Surely you can call your friends in Los Angeles and ask them to be involved.

  8. crunchymama on May 1, 2013 at 1:08 pm05/1/2013 1:08 pm

    • 000

    Definition of “insanity”: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

    You don’t HAVE to be Einstein to work out that you’ve set up a disaster in the making – already made in many places! – and that working harder at the disaster is going to make more of the same. Maybe he’s hoping for a “better” disaster?

    Can we PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE get an actual EDUCATOR in charge of the Department of Education?!?!?


    • Sue on May 1, 2013 at 2:47 pm05/1/2013 2:47 pm

      • 000

      Yes!!! This is the crux of the matter – since 1979 to now there’s ‘data':

      9 Secretaries of Education

      4 Lawyers
      1 K-12 Experience
      1 K-12/Higher Ed Experience
      1 Only Higher Ed
      1 Political Operative – dabbled in Ed Policy
      1. K-12 but only in an actual school long enough to tie his shoe

      So in the last 30+ years we have overwhelmingly had Secretaries who don’t know a damn thing about teaching and learning. That’s a total of 6 out of 9 – or 66%.

      Neither Democrat nor Republican value education enough to appoint Secretaries who have actually devoted their lives to teaching and learning. It’s a crying shame!!!

  9. Daiyu Suzuki on May 1, 2013 at 11:30 am05/1/2013 11:30 am

    • 000

    Watch out people. Arne Duncan said explicitly during his talk yesterday that we need to improve and diversify assessment, and one way is to standardized non-cognitive skills and aspects…which I understand as things like leadership, capacity to care, creativity, and imagination.

  10. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) on May 1, 2013 at 11:09 am05/1/2013 11:09 am

    • 000

    from a letter I wrote to the LA Times 4 years ago:

    Your reporter, Seema Mehta says Arne Duncan was in California on a “15-state listening tour.” [U.S. Education Secretary Says California Students In Peril, May 23, 2009]

    Yet, I discover that Duncan warned, challenged, said, repeatedly told, said, said, told, and warned.

    Then Charles Weis, “superintendent of Santa Clara County schools and the president of the Assn. of California School Administrators,” raised a gnawing concern.

    So Duncan demurred, and Supt. of Public Instruction Jack O’Connell later said he feared.

    So, Duncan challenged, said, assessed, slammed, also said, said [again], then met privately with state officials to discuss.

    We are then told that Duncan called for, said, noted and also spoke.

    Finally, in response to a child’s question he modeled mastery of the English language by explaining, “We do pretty good.”

    Obviously, he wants CA to do gooder. But when does his listening begin?


    Richard K. Moore


    • barbara madeloni on May 1, 2013 at 11:20 am05/1/2013 11:20 am

      • 000

      This is awesome! Yes, when does the listening begin?

    • el on May 9, 2013 at 2:48 pm05/9/2013 2:48 pm

      • 000

      A most excellent synopsis.

  11. barbara madeloni on May 1, 2013 at 11:02 am05/1/2013 11:02 am

    • 000

    I was at this talk. It is difficult to describe how effortlessly Duncan presents his outright lies (the CCSS were designed by teachers) and distortions (implications that prior to hyper-accountability teachers never assessed anyone and were not responsible to anyone for their work). It is down right creepy, however, how he operates within the ideology of the market, where we compete with each other for resources, where schools are about workforce development, where goals are for students to serve the economy so that we (who is we?) can be internationally competitive. We had more than a few people holding signs, a rabble rousing picket line in front of the hotel, and strong applause for the Real Arne- Arne Dodge-who asked the pointed questions. But—there will be no change without risk and more of the AERA membership has to risk the discomfort of breaking rules of ‘politeness’ to call Duncan and his crew out on the destructive results of his policies and the deep dishonesty of his language.


    • navigio on May 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm05/1/2013 4:31 pm

      • 000

      I agree with you Barbara. I remember a year or two ago there was a huffpo story about duncan speaking at some teacher gathering. The things he said seemed so absolutely contradictory to the policies he was pushing elsewhere. Perhaps because he does not listen, he also does not expect others to listen to him..

    • Manuel on May 1, 2013 at 8:51 pm05/1/2013 8:51 pm

      • 000

      Indeed, the AERA membership will have to start asking pointed questions about the tests.

      I have tried to get faculty at certain school interested on discussing the CST results and why, mysteriously, the number of proficient students creeps up, overall, by about 2% every year. (Well, not so mysterious: the score distribution is a Bell Curve and it’s not designed to budge, else you can’t compare cohorts.)

      They listen politely, nod appropriately when presented with hard data, and go on with their lives. Why? Because to get involved in this is not what advances their careers. It is too political and probably too close to real practice and too far from theory. They have seen what happened to Linda Darling-Hammond. Her outspokenness during Obama’s first campaign got her labeled a liability and Arne, the ultimate team player, got the gig. Or so I’ve heard/read elsewhere. It could be just a rumor. But it could also be true. So why rock the boat?

      I’ll tell you why: because if they don’t, they will become increasingly irrelevant to reality.

      We will live in interesting times…

    • el on May 9, 2013 at 2:47 pm05/9/2013 2:47 pm

      • 000

      I can’t imagine how maddening it must be to hear him say all this in person when it is HIS PRECISE POLICIES forcing/obligating schools in waivered states to USE THESE VERY FLAWED TESTS, as he puts it, in this way.

      There was a press release from his office a while back, congratulating themselves about releasing districts from burdensome and counterproductive NCLB restrictions… if only they agreed to take on these new restrictions. I read that and thought, “If you think those rules are so terrible, and you have the power to waive them, why would you want ANY school anywhere to have to live with them? Holy Freaking Cow.

      And, as I’ve mentioned before, if the test score data is valid for determining anyone’s effectiveness, it ought to be valid for determining Duncan’s effectiveness. I’m fairly disappointed that he doesn’t want to spend more time with his family, and seems to be in it for a second term.

  12. Betty on May 1, 2013 at 10:57 am05/1/2013 10:57 am

    • 000

    This system is flawed from the top down. Mr. Duncan has no school experience, schools are run by school boards where big money is buying seats and principals who also may not have stepped in a classroom. Teachers are blamed for students failing to pass a test designed to have both the teachers and students fail. Students come to school hungry, tired, stressed out and hopelessly worried about the world. Their parents are either not trying at all to be parents or trying too hard and creating spoiled, entitled children. Teachers can not be asked to fix what parents are failing at and then teach children how to be contributing members of society. Sad thing is those failing parents are voting for the members of Congress that think the right to own any kind of gun is more important than providing free breakfast and lunch to school kids so no kid is labeled “free and reduced”. Get with it, folks, before it is too late!

  13. Bass6 on May 1, 2013 at 10:42 am05/1/2013 10:42 am

    • 000

    The “Wild West”of Education Reform brought to you by Mr Duncan and Race To The Top. It has become patently obvious that this reform equals privatization. To the aforementioned destruction of testing materials : teachers evaluations are based upon the results of standardized tests. How can it be legal to destroy these tests? Would not the very test be the “data” that Mr Duncan loves to use for decision making? In New York State , school districts are required to store the state Regents Exams for a certain period , after the administration of tests. Can’t have it both ways Arnie!

  14. Love Teaching on May 1, 2013 at 10:40 am05/1/2013 10:40 am

    • 000

    I’m stunned you covered this. The media has been absolutely silent on what teachers across the US know to be the takeover of public education. Testing is one tentacle of a very nasty octopus. The body is big money corporations who have made it clear that public education is the last untapped frontier for investment. The sad part? Your children, OUR students, are the innocent victims in all of this. The other tentacles are data sharing with all of your child’s personal information, including health records, test scores, disciplinary records, social security number, etc. going to InBloom (in NYS), CCSS, and the de-funding of schools. Your schools will be privatized one way or another, either through flawed tests which will provide low tests scores, thus placing your school on “lists” or through de-funding to the point that many schools will have to close. Wake up, parents. Google it if you don’t believe me, because you aren’t going to see this in the media. They are owned by the very companies who seek to destroy. This is a bi-partisan disaster. Republicans and Democrats are equally culpable. RttT is driving this.

  15. Jennie on May 1, 2013 at 8:57 am05/1/2013 8:57 am

    • 000

    Do not understand how they can continue to allow all of this madness know it is all Flawed!!How can you respect any one of them!!!

  16. readdoctor on May 1, 2013 at 8:33 am05/1/2013 8:33 am

    • 000

    Isn’t it time we all admit that Secretary Duncan failed to measure up to the challenge the day he came up with “Race To The Top” as our nation’s education policy. I say the time for experimental leadership and reforms is over. We can do better than a United States Secretary of Education who has never been a teacher, or a building administrator. More than we need a moratorium on testing we need one on non educators as leaders.

  17. Music Teacher on May 1, 2013 at 7:51 am05/1/2013 7:51 am

    • 000

    Mr. Duncan had better get to NYS because this is happening daily. Music teachers are being evaluated based on ELA test scores. Music Teachers are being told by principals that their “observation will be based on teaching an ELA lesson”. Honestly, I WISH I was making this up.
    Testing is out of control in NYS. The tests are flawed. They are destroyed after scorig has taken place. They are NOT being used to drive and inform instruction.
    The entire Education Department, State and Federal, has become a laughingstock.

  18. Stacey Young on May 1, 2013 at 7:10 am05/1/2013 7:10 am

    • 000

    Can someone ask Mr.Duncan who he is asking and listening to????

    When an audience member asked if Duncan would consider a moratorium on standardized testing until teachers get up to speed on the Common Core and the assessment tools prove to be effective, Duncan said, “We understand this is a difficult tough time of transition. We’re spending a huge amount of time listening to ideas about how to do it.”

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