Why Obama is placing new limits on standardized testing

President Obama on Saturday announced new federal guidelines that would limit the percentage of class time taken up by standardized testing and help local governments reevaluate individual programs.

Sue Ogrocki/AP/File
Students at a summer reading academy at Buchanan elementary school work in the computer lab at the school in Oklahoma City. Wading into one of the most polarizing issues in education, President Barack Obama called Saturday for capping standardized testing at 2 percent of classroom time, while conceding the government shares responsibility for having turned tests into the be-all-and-end-all of American schools.

President Obama on Saturday introduced new federal guidelines to curb the emphasis on standardized testing in public schools, signaling a turnaround on a subject that has in recent years grown to new heights of contention.

Mr. Obama is now calling for standardized testing to take up to 2 percent of class time, compared to the 2.3 percent now used by the average eighth-grader, reports The Associated Press.

Standardized tests became mandatory in 2001 for students in third grade and higher under No Child Left Behind, a law legislators voted to overhaul in July.

Students currently spend 20 to 25 hours each school year taking standardized tests, according to a study of the nation's 66 largest school districts also released Saturday by the Council of Great City Schools. 

While Obama cannot enforce the new policy in individual states or districts, the Department of Education has rolled out a plan that would help these local governments reevaluate their testing programs, The Wall Street Journal reports. 

“Learning is about so much more than just filling in the right bubble,” the president said in a video announcement posted on Facebook. “So we’re going to work with states, school districts, teachers, and parents to make sure that we’re not obsessing about testing.”

The administration’s recommendations are focused on three basic principles, he said.

“First, our kids should only take tests that are worth taking,” Obama said. “Tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time or crowd out teaching and learning. Tests should enhance teaching and learning. And third, tests should be just one source of information.”

Obama’s announcement Saturday “acknowledged its own role in the proliferation of tests,” writes The New York Times.

“I still have no question that we need to check at least once a year to make sure our kids are on track or identify areas where they need support,” said Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. “But I can’t tell you how many conversations I’m in with educators who are understandably stressed and concerned about an overemphasis on testing in some places and how much time testing and test prep are taking from instruction.”

The shift to a more moderate approach to testing comes as teachers’ unions and parents have protested what they call “over-testing,” and an increasing number of parents and students this year decided to "opt out" from required exams, The Christian Science Monitor reported.

The Department of Education has for months been piloting alternative assessments to statewide standardized testing, the Monitor reported.

A number of public school districts in New Hampshire, for example, were the first to debut a pilot program this year focusing on what’s known as “competency-based learning,” a tasks-based review of how to apply new subject material.

“It fits into a much bigger conversation about ... how we can create a humane assessment system that’s useful to teachers but also useful to states and the federal government for holding schools accountable,” Julia Freeland, a research fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, told the Monitor.

This report contains material from The Associated Press.

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