California and Texas are the Red Sox and Yankees of interstate rivalries. The biggest blue state and the big, bad red state love to hate each other, but they are fighting on the same side against the expensive and useless burden of over-testing. Unfortunately, the Obama administration has made it clear that the testing will continue until the scores improve, even when they already have improved or they tell us nothing.
California is adopting a new testing system that they hope will move away from rote learning and filling in little bubbles to encouraging critical thinking. While they field test the new assessments and align the curriculum, state officials want to stop giving the old tests for one year. This makes sense, because testing kids on a curriculum they’re no longer being taught would produce test scores about as useful as knowing the shoe sizes of your favorite baseball players when they were in elementary school. The California Superintendent of Public Instruction said it would be “continuing to look in the rear-view mirror with outdated tests.”
Education Secretary Arne Duncan did not wait to see whether Gov. Jerry Brown would sign the bill before he threatened to withhold federal money from California schools.
“Letting an entire school year pass for millions of students without sharing information on their schools’ performance with them and their families is the wrong way to go about this transition. No one wants to over-test, but if you are going to support all students’ achievement, you need to know how all students are doing,” wrote Sec. Duncan.
Meanwhile, the Department of Education rejected a common-sense reform in, of all places, Texas. Legislators and Gov. Rick Perry recognized that it wasn’t necessary to force every child to take every test every year to keep them on track. Under current law, a Texas schoolchild has to pass 17 tests to get to high school. This takes months out of the school year, costs millions of dollars, and produces data of dubious value.
For example, a child who passes a reading test one year is overwhelmingly likely to pass it the next year, according to data from the Texas Education Agency. The legislature asked for a federal waiver to let students who passed their state standardized tests in the 3rd and 5th grades to skip the tests in the 4th, 6th and 7th grades. Teachers could focus on those kids who needed more help, students who had mastered the work would be freed up to learn new things, and taxpayers would save $13.4 million over two years.
This was a great example of government getting out of its own way, but there was a hitch. Because the Texas law conflicted with No Child Left Behind, Texas needed permission from the U.S. Department of Education to stop giving tests to kids who did not need them in order to produce data that told us nothing.
Unfortunately, Obama’s Education Department said no.
“Annual assessment of all students in grades three through eight is critical to holding schools and local education agencies accountable for improving the achievement of all students,” Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education Deborah Delisle wrote in a letter to Texas officials.
But why is “annual assessment of all students” critical? Does testing every kid every year tell us anything useful? Why is it necessary to have the expensive and largely useless data that changes very little year-to-year? And in California’s case, what would parents learn from test scores that would confirm that apples and oranges are, in fact, different?
Sec. Duncan’s refusal to play ball with California and Texas shows that the federal government is committed to the ideology of assessment for the sake of the data, not the learning. This is measuring for the sake of filling out spreadsheets, not little minds. In a speech to educators last spring, Sec. Duncan said, “We must reliably measure student learning, growth, and gain,” as if measuring, and not learning, was the point.
It’s time to stop testing for testing’s sake and fostering the innovation that makes America exceptional. If California and Texas can agree on that, then anything is possible-even progress.
Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @JasStanford.