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, Featured, No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, Reporting & Analysis, State and Federal Policies, Tests and Assessments · Tags: , , ,

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  1. Daiyu Suzuki says:

    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.

  2. Richard Moore (@infosherpa) says:

    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

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

    2. el says:

      A most excellent synopsis.

  3. 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.

    1. navigio says:

      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..

    2. Manuel says:

      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…

    3. el says:

      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.

  4. Betty says:

    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!

  5. Bass6 says:

    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!

  6. Love Teaching says:

    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.

  7. Jennie says:

    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!!!

  8. readdoctor says:

    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.

  9. Music Teacher says:

    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.

  10. Stacey Young says:

    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.”