Flypaper

The word around town is that support for annual testing among rank-and-file members of Congress—in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle—is dangerously low. They are constantly hearing complaints from their constituents about the overuse and abuse of standardized tests, and many are eager to do something about it. We policy wonks may see the value in such tests (Brookings has been especially effective in making powerful arguments for keeping them), but parents and the public are fed up.

To be of service, here’s a crack at some “talking points” that members of Congress might use when the testing issue comes up at town hall meetings and the like. I strongly suspect that some of you can do much better. Give it a try! How would YOU explain to your fellow citizens the need for annual testing?

I understand that many of you feel strongly that there’s too much testing in our schools. You can’t throw a rock inside a school without hitting a standardized test; every time your son or daughter turns around, they are taking some test designed by some far away bureaucrat or testing company.

And you’re right. There is too much testing, and it’s taking time away from real learning—from art and music, from social studies and science, from time for play and exploration.

And there’s little doubt that all of this testing is stressing out our kids and our teachers.

Right...

THIRD-RATE ORATORY, FIRST-RATE FUN
President Obama’s annual State of the Union address will be held tonight, and while polarizing K–12 policy is likely to be absent, early childhood and higher education will get plenty of air time. On the docket for these two subjects: the president’s free community college proposal, along with an idea to streamline child-care tax benefits and incentives for families with young children. Be sure to hop on Twitter during your SOTU viewing party for a special edition of the EWA’s buzzword bingo.

RELAX, THEY WON'T REVOKE YOUR PASSPORT
Arizona will be the first state to require high school students to pass a civics test, the assessment that all candidates for U.S. citizenship must take. A poll found that 77 percent of responders support this new requirement. Before you decide on the wisdom of the policy, see if you can pass the test.

AND YOU THOUGHT LUTEFISK WAS BAD
While Scandinavian countries top global rankings in many education metrics, a new piece in the Washington Post suggests that they are not the utopias they are sometimes made out to be. It seems that even the “happiest countries on Earth” struggle with racial tension, a slowing economy, and high youth unemployment (to name just a few). What does this mean for education? For starters, we need to be realistic when looking to other countries as potential models. But as Chester E. Finn, Jr. and...

HOLD THE PHONE
The numbers are in: According to a new Quinnipiac Poll released today, 54 percent of New Yorkers support Mayor Bill de Blasio’s decision to lift the cell phone ban in the city’s schools. It’s a good reprieve for de Blasio in the court of public opinion; his approval rating, while positive overall, still lags under 50 percent (the territory usually deemed safe for incumbent politicians). Chancellor Carmen Farina’s popularity is lower still, at 39 percent. Maybe it has something to do with her apparent imperviousness to evidentiary analysis

IN THE LOOP
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper has contributed a dose of common sense on testing that some of our national politicians would be well-advised to heed. Just a week after members of the State Board of Education voted (likely with no legal standing) to allow school districts to opt out of Common Core-aligned PARCC tests, the governor took time in his State of the State address to dissuade lawmakers from cutting annual assessments. “We need to confront the truth about whether Colorado’s kids are getting the education they need to compete and succeed in the job market,” he said. “But how do we know if we are getting the job done unless we accurately measure individual student growth?”

SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
Now that we’ve broached the topic of our beloved congressional leaders, here’s your semi-regular ESEA update: Education Week has conscientiously assembled a layman’s crib...

Though hardly the only issue to be debated during the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education act, annual testing has taken center stage in discussions so far. Lamar Alexander, chairman of the Senate HELP committee, put forth a bill that leaves open the possibility of removing the federal requirement that states test students annually in reading and math from grades three through eight—a possibility that has thoroughly freaked out much of the education-reform community.

But as Alexander has explained, he is merely trying to respond to what he and every other member of Congress are hearing from their constituents: There’s too much damn testing in the schools.

But is that true? And if so, is it because of the federal requirements?

A new report from the Ohio Department of Education provides some timely answers, at least for one state. (A bellwether state, mind you.) State Superintendent Dick Ross charged his department with collecting information about the number of hours Buckeye State students spend preparing for and taking tests (not including tests developed by their own teachers). The findings are illuminating (most of this language is verbatim):

  • The average student spends approximately 19.8 hours taking tests each year. This is only 1-3 percent of the school year, depending on grade level. Kindergarten students spend the least amount of time on testing (11.3 hours on average), while grade-10 students spend the most (28.4 hours on average).
     
  • Students spend approximately 15 additional hours
  • ...
Cynthia G. Brown

Editor's note: This post appears in response to Michael J. Petrilli and Frederick M. Hess's earlier article.

I was appalled to read the attack of Jonah Edelman by my colleagues Mike Petrilli and Rick Hess for supposedly playing the “race card” on the ESEA reauthorization in his recent Daily Beast column. Hey guys, why the cheap shot? Jonah was citing historical facts that even today’s schoolchildren study. He talks mostly about groups of disadvantaged students, particularly those living in poverty, and uses the term “racism” once. And if you knew Jonah and each of his parents as I do, you would know that Jonah’s views have evolved way past his parents’ views from different times.

I won’t argue the strengths and weaknesses of NCLB. They both exist and are being vigorously debated. But to assert that states will do the right thing flies in the face of many current practices nationwide, not just history. How can Rick and Mike deny that most states have been insensitive to inequity in schooling and elsewhere? There is ample documentation that states choose to fund high-poverty schools at lesser rates than low-poverty schools, unlike most every other advanced country. Or that high-poverty schools have weaker teachers. And so on. And then there are other current state actions that reinforce disadvantages for undereducated and low-income people like the voter suppression actions being pursued in many states.

Maybe the federal government cannot do much in our grossly decentralized education governance system, but the...

DISTANCE MATTERS
What really matters most to parents when choosing a school for their child? A new study from the Education Research Alliance for New Orleans has found that factors such as distance, extended hours, and extracurricular offerings tend to outweigh a school’s academic record for many parents, particularly those lower on the income spectrum. What parents want out of schools is a topic worthy of further study.

MORE OIL, MORE PROBLEMS
While millions of Americans are currently enjoying the lowest oil prices they have seen in years, state-level petroeconomies like Alaska are experiencing huge revenue shortages. In these states, funding for K–12 and higher education will soon be feeling the crunch. With the added uncertainty regarding the duration of the oil price drop, state lawmakers will likely continue to budget frugally for the foreseeable future.

DOUBLETALK
New York City schools will open forty dual-language programs in September as part of new Chancellor Carmen Farina’s plan to immerse students in bilingualism and biculturalism. The classes will contain half English-language learners and half English-proficient students, who will receive instruction in both English and a targeted language such as Spanish or French.

GRADE-SPAN TESTING IS A BAD IDEA
The Center for American Progress and the AFT say that annual testing should be maintained to help better assess student outcomes, but should not be used for school-level accountability. For that purpose they recommend tests taken once per grade span. Many reformers, including...

TARHEEL BLUES
North Carolina is the latest state to investigate a new set of standards to replace the Common Core, a move that Michael Petrilli warns won’t be so easy. The state has organized a commission to review and potentially replace the Common Core. As this NPR article explains, the debate is split. The commission is set to reach its decision in December 2015.

STICKER SHOCK
The White House has released the price tag for President Obama’s proposal to make two years of community college free to qualifying students. The initiative is projected to cost the federal government $60 billion over the course of a decade. It will certainly be interesting to see how the administration plans to foot this bill in the president’s budget proposal, which is scheduled for release in early February.

DOUBLE PLUS UNGOOD
The Atlantic’s Alia Wong asks the question we’ve all faced at one time or another: Why is education reporting so boring? The answer, according to Wong, lies in the dense forest of jargon, acronyms, and buzzwords that combine to baffle and anesthetize everyone who comes in contact with education writing. From “holistic mastery” to “the experiential-based learning process,” the piece is an amusing sendup of both educationese and the unfortunate folks who have to become fluent in it.

STEEL STANDING
An unlikely leader in the technological learning revolution is Pittsburgh, according to Education Week. Now decades into its gradual recovery from the industrial...

Editor's note: This post originally appeared in a slightly different form at National Review Online.

It has taken liberal school reformers almost no time at all to throw the race card into the debate about reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2002.

Eager to retain an expansive federal role, but finding it tough to argue this position on the merits, liberal reformers have rushed to charge that the current effort to dial back the federal role is a thinly veiled attack on minority children.

Perhaps the best example of this phenomenon was provided just the other day by a Daily Beast column penned by Jonah Edelman, CEO of the education advocacy group Stand for Children. Edelman is the scion of two liberal icons: Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund, and Peter Edelman, a Clinton administration official who famously resigned to protest welfare reform. Jonah is also a friend and a smart guy, and Stand for Children has done some laudable work.

Unfortunately, that’s what makes his column so notable when it denounces any effort to reduce the federal role as a surrender to the forces of “racism, politics, ignorance, [and] indifference.” Edelman perfectly illustrates the problems with liberal-flavored school reform and its hollow calls for “bipartisanship.”

In the piece, Edelman denounces efforts to shed some of No Child Left Behind’s more onerous and unworkable provisions as a “threat” to “your kids’ future.” He then recounts a parade of horribles from the last century. “Linda...

Monday afternoon, a Washington, D.C., metro rail train stopped in a tunnel not far from a major station, and the car began filling with smoke. Soon the lights went off and, though many passengers were struggling to breathe, they were told by metro employees to stay put. A spokesman for first responders disputes the timeline, but the Washington Post spoke with passengers who said they were waiting as much as an hour before help arrived. The paper also quotes a fire department spokesman who admitted that, even once they arrived on the scene, "firefighters did not immediately enter the tunnel to help the riders because they were not sure whether the subway’s electrified third rail had been deactivated."

All told, one woman lost her life and eighty-four were hospitalized. In the coming weeks and months we will learn more about how this happened, whether the response was adequate, and whether the accident and subsequent loss of life could have been prevented.

To many riders, accidents like this are not surprising. A 2009 train collision killed nine people. There are also years’ worth of examples documented by bloggers, everyday riders, and journalists of seldom-enforced rules, sloppy workmanship, and bafflingly onerous collectively bargained work rules that sacrifice quality and safety in the interest of other union priorities.

To top it off, system leadership will often downplay the problems to make it seem like everything is under control. A post from Cato's Walter Olson after...

Last week, I explained the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) in a single table:

Now that Senator Alexander, chairman of the HELP Committee, has released a draft bill, let’s take a look at where it stands on these various issues (items that moved are in bold):

In brief, most of my “yellow” items went to red—as in, they got left on the cutting room floor. Just testing in science and a version of School Improvement Grants made it to the “green” territory.[1] And most intriguingly, annual testing—the star of the current debate—stays in yellow thanks to Alexander’s equivocation on the issue. (He included two options in his bill—either keep the current annual testing requirements or let states propose something that is similar in spirit.)

To be sure, this is just the opening bid. Conservatives will aim to shrink the green list, and liberals will aim to grow it. What’s still not known is where the president’s “red line” may fall. Stay tuned!




[1] As several readers noted, the School Improvement Grants program is officially gone, though the bill does include a large state set-aside for school improvement activities. 

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