Could today mark the beginning of the end for standardized tests in U.S. public schools? Probably not.
But teachers, administrators and parents who have complained for years that the high-stakes, one-size-fits-all exams are taking all the learning out of school might find some good in news that the Obama administration has offered to waive the tests for some schools.
The details won’t be known until September, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced today that qualifying states could be granted a waiver from No Child Left Behind, the education law that used the tests to determine which schools would get extra funding and which would be closed down.
Duncan said states that met other school reform measures would be granted waivers. It’s not clear whether the tests themselves will be waived or whether the consequences — such as wholesale firing of teachers and/or closing schools — would be.
The waiver announcement was made after Congress, focused on the debt ceiling pony show, failed to pass any meaningful legislative reform in education. The original NCLB law set a deadline of 2014 for all schools to achieve 100 percent reading and math proficiency on standardized reading and math tests.
Failing to mediocre schools have tried for years to improve steadily to meet the 2014 criteria, but without funding or workable strategies to match it has become clear that the hurdle was too great. Moreover, the high stakes have had the unintended consequence of massive cheating scandals, as we’ve seen in Atlanta and Philadelphia schools.
I’m in favor of some testing as a tool for teachers and schools to see where their students are at and where they need to get. But we’ve seen these hours-long, annual tests turn into the central focus of the public school mission and, in the long run, it’s taken away from risk-taking and innovation in the classroom. These tests have famously taken away from physical education, music, art and — weirdly, science — in the curriculum. After all, there are so many hours in the day to lead students through a boring reading comprehension exercise (instead of say, taking time to create excited readers). I also think these tests and their accompanying school-wide scores have further divided communities into good school/bad school areas without giving a fuller picture of what’s going on in the school population, etc. High-scoring schools pat themselves on the back for brilliant teaching and solid parental support when, actually, the population they serve would have done well no matter what.
I know this waiver is a way of drawing attention back to the issue of education and also a way of avoiding really embarrassing and disastrous outcomes in 2014. 100 percent? Could you imagine the number of schools that would be closed? Unfortunately, it’s not a condemnation of testing culture. But maybe it will be some kind of pressure release that we need in order to get back to reforming education based on what works, what the data show, what really goes into a curriculum to create active, engaged, life-long learners.
Watch a video of what Newark, N.J., Mayor Cory Booker thinks of the waiver.
What do you think of these waivers? Ass-covering? Too little too late?
Photo: wwwworks via flickr