Too Much Testing? Top Ten Takeaways from Obama’s Policy Announcement

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

October 26, 2015

By Charles Barone

President Obama got a lot of attention over the weekend for his plan to limit annual student testing to 2% of class time. Obama remarked that he’s heard from parents who worry “about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning.” On the whole, Obama’s comments and his stated goal to eliminate over-testing are eminently reasonable.

There’s less though – and more in other ways – than meets the eye on this. Here are our top ten takeaways.


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  1. The proposed 2% limit is nothing new for Obama. As Caitlin Emma of Politico, among others, noted, the 2% limit is not a new proposal. The White House included the policy among a lengthy list of recommendations for ESEA reauthorization it released in July.

  1. The coverage of the 2% policy is disproportionate to its impact. In announcing the 2% policy, the Administration cited figures that as much as 2.4% of class time (that high-water figure is for 8th grade) is taken up, on average, by the administration of required federal, state, and local assessments. If the policy is taken at face value, we’re talking, at most, an average 16.6% reduction of time spent on testing.
  1. The 2% Testing Cap = Political Catnip. Obama’s announcement predictably elicited gloating from the same right (Mike Petrilli/Fordam)-left (teachers unions) alliance that’s been working since 2009 against the Administration’s policies to tie student performance to evaluations of schools and teachers.
  1. Granted, those criticizing testing policy make some good points. But those on the right are just as unlikely to speak positively about the Obama Administration in particular and the federal role in education in general as the teachers unions are to support the use of valid and reliable information on student outcomes, no matter what level of government proposes them, to rate schools and teachers. There’s no satisfying either of those poles on federal testing policy. Never has been.
  1. The problem is not a federal one. Although Obama’ remarks over the weekend included a mea culpa that his Administration’s policies shoulder some of the blame for over-testing, he was polite enough not to note that most testing is required by states and local school districts, not by the federal government. On average, federal policies account for 7 hours of testing per year – roughly 0.6% of an average school year.
  1. There’s broad bipartisan support for limiting testing. A diverse array of organizations – including the American Federation of Teachers, Democrats for Education Reform, The Education Trust, the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and the National Education Association – have co-endorsed legislation to eliminate low-quality and unnecessary assessments. Provisions of the SMART Act, sponsored by Senator Tammy Baldwin and Representative Suzanne Bonamici, were included in both the Senate and House ESEA bills.
  1. States are already leading the way. Most states have already launched efforts to reduce unnecessary and low-quality tests. This past June, the Council of Chief State School Officers announced, “39 states have taken action to review their assessment systems to determine opportunities for test reduction.”
  1. Be careful to ensure that the 2% cap is not quality-blind. Many observers noted that the 2% limit might seem somewhat arbitrary. Mike Casserly, Executive Director of the Council of Great City Schools (the thunder of whose study was arguably stolen by Obama’s weekend remarks) rightly asked: “What happens if somebody puts a cap on testing, and to meet the cap ends up eliminating tests that could actually be helpful, or leaves the redundancy in the test and gets rid of a test that teachers can use to inform their instruction?”
  1. We need a more intelligent conversation about testing. What’s being left out of the debate for the most part is that while parents and teachers are concerned about over-testing, both see a role for tests both in the classroom and in public policy. Research overwhelmingly shows that tests are predictive of future achievement and outcomes and that tying student assessments to action improves achievement (see here and here). Instead of having an argument that goes pretty much “Testing is Good” v. “Testing is Bad,” we ought to take an honest look at what the tests we have now do measure and what they don’t and get smarter about both the tests we give and how to use them productively.
  1. You are not doing the Administration justice if you only focus on Obama’s public statement over the weekend. Again, Obama’s 2% cap is part of a lengthy list of recommendations on testing and other issues for ESEA reauthorization. One need not endorse each and every one of them to conclude that they’re much more thoughtful than most anything we’re seeing from those commenting on Obama’s recent remarks.