The Attorney General is supposed to be the nation's top lawyer.
The Surgeon General is supposed to be the nation's top physician.
So why is Arne Duncan, the nation's Secretary of Education, behaving more like a schoolyard bully than like the nation's top teacher?
In the face of unprecedented opposition to his administration's program of standardized testing, with nearly 200,000 parents in New York State alone opting their children out of standardized tests that they perceive as not only unhelpful, but downright damaging, Sec. Duncan went on the offensive Tuesday, promising that if the states wouldn't force those children to take his tests, then he would:
"'We think most states will do that,' Duncan told an Education Writers Association conference in Chicago, according to Chalkbeat New York. 'If states don’t do that, then we [the federal government] have an obligation to step in.'
Duncan didn’t elaborate on what the federal intervention might look like. It could, however, involve labeling districts with too many opt-outs as “failing,” a status that places restrictions on how schools use federal money. This would in turn pressure state government and school districts to roll back parental opt-out rights.
Duncan went on to say: 'Folks in the civil rights community, folks in the disability community, they want their kids being assessed. They want to know if they are making progress or growth,' Duncan said."
First, everyone should be considered a part of the "civil rights community" and the "disability community," as these communities are made up of those who support civil rights and those with disabilities. The fact that Sec. Duncan is so clearly trying to "divide and conquer" is at best a very clumsy strategy, and at worst an obvious attempt to bully folks into feeling guilty or like bad parents for opting out.
Second, no teacher needs yearly standardized tests to know if their students are "making progress or growth." Just as parents don't need these tests to know if their children are growing. The people that teach and love these children are well aware of what they are learning, what challenges and successes they are encountering, and what strategies will work best to help them continue to grow and learn. Let's not pretend that a once-per-year multiple choice test will somehow magically provide some special sauce that will reveal what kids know and are able to do.
Finally, if this many parents are angry enough to opt their kids out of these tests in the first place, just how ticked off do you think they will be when the Sec. of Education threatens to force their kids to actually take the tests?
And, Mr. Duncan--have you ever really tried to force a child to take a test? I had a tough time getting my then 4 year old to put on his mittens in the morning. Good luck with that.
What Sec. Duncan doesn't seem to know--because he was never a teacher himself--is that the testing movement depends on the goodwill of the teachers and students involved. Without getting "buy-in" from teachers, parents and students there is no way this thing is going to fly. Let's say that Mr. Duncan "succeeds" in getting every child in the nation to actually sit down and take his tests. Does he really think that no child will look at those blank rows of bubbles begging to be drawn on and not start filling them out in the shape of a tree, or just color in every bubble on the sheet? And to think that these tests are supposed to be used to make high stakes decisions on whether teachers keep their jobs or not. No wonder that the American Statistical Association is on record as saying that Value Added Measures, a statistical approach that uses test scores to come up with building-level scores, is an inappropriate and invalid use of standardized tests.
The way to "fix" this problem is not by playing the heavy and threatening to force these tests on unwilling children and teachers. It's to listen to the opinions of those who have legitimate objections to these tests, and implement thoughtful reforms, such as...
- limiting standardized testing to one time in grades 3-6, one time in middle school, and one time toward the end of high school
- ensuring that test results will be shared with teachers so they can use them to improve instruction
- guaranteeing that test scores will not be used to evaluate teachers--which these tests are incapable of doing with any degree of accuracy
So, Mr. Duncan, instead of posturing and threatening punishments, why don't you try doing what a real education leader would do--listen carefully to dissenting opinions, work together with your colleagues in the schools, and develop a better testing model that actually helps teachers teach and helps students learn?
Mitchell Robinson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Chair of Music Education
Michigan State University