published Sunday, August 11th, 2013

Huffman: Commissioner defends need for school testing

Kevin S. Huffman

In last Sunday’s Times Free Press, David Cook waxed eloquent about his perception of the problem with public education (testing) and the culprit behind the problem (me). He described the lengths to which I, as commissioner of education, have gone to increase testing and thereby ruin public education. It was an interesting read, and I really could only find one major problem with his piece: The premise wasn’t true.

Since the Haslam administration came into office in 2011, the state has added exactly one state-mandated assessment — high school chemistry — which will begin during the coming school year. In fact, through our first-in-the-country waiver from federal No Child Left Behind legislation, we have reduced the punitive testing measurement systems previously in place. And for all of Cook’s gnashing of teeth over the amount of time spent on tests, last year’s mandatory state assessments averaged a total of around eight hours of student time. For all subjects. For the entire year.

As a state, we offer additional optional assessments to districts if they think they will be educationally beneficial to their students. Districts are allowed to give — at state expense — basic skills assessments in early grades. And we have offered — again, at state expense — Common Core-aligned assessments so that schools can see whether their students are ready for harder standards. Again, these tests are not mandated by the state.

As Times Free Press education reporter Kevin Hardy noted in a lengthy piece on testing in the same edition of the newspaper, most school districts choose to also use “formative assessments,” which are given throughout the school year to measure student progress. These tests have no stakes or accountability for students or schools, but are used by districts to know what material students have mastered and what material requires additional teaching and support. In short, formative assessments (again, fully determined by districts) are used to help ensure that students learn more.

Cook argues for getting rid of standardized tests altogether, but fails to identify any other means of measuring our progress. His suggestion that we use scores from the ACT or SAT (which are administered in the 11th or 12th grade) is impractical, not to mention unallowable under federal law. When taxpayers hand over $8 billion a year to support our schools, it is not viable to tell them, “Don’t worry – we’ll know if your children learned the material 12 years from now.” If Cook wants to lead an anti-testing movement, he should refocus his energy on Washington D.C., where one of the only things Democrats and Republicans agree on these days is that schools should, under federal law, continue to give annual assessments in reading and math.

In short, Cook is welcome to argue that standardized tests are somehow bad or unnecessary. He can argue that the rise in use of optional assessments is unfounded. He could argue that schools should spend less time preparing for assessments (time that is driven entirely by local decision making).

What is not defensible, though, is spreading the idea that the state has increased the amount of required student testing. We have not. Had Cook read his own newspaper on Sunday, he would have discovered that state-mandated assessments continue to take up about one-half of 1 percent of the hours in the school year.

Kevin S. Huffman is commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education.

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LaughingBoy said...

Teeth gnasher, and hand wringer. The worst of the liberals want little or no accountability in classroom results since more money could be thrown the schools' way. Or it's racism/not caring about "the poor"

August 11, 2013 at 9:11 a.m.
jjmez said...

For every new required new test added in order to graduate some old test or condition should be removed. Like (1.) having to perform so many hours of volunteer work as a requirement in order to graduate. If volunteering comes with conditions, then it's no longer volunteering and ventures over into forced labor without pay. The other one I recall was (2.) Students having to write a report or essay of some kind with an outline approved by the school. This led to a lot of students being forced into a summer program, although they passed all tests, wrote the report/essay and outlined it, but just because the outline wasn't written in the format they wanted it, the students were forced to attend a summer class and receive their diploma without being allowed to graduate and walk across the stage with their classmates. I'm not sure if this practice still exist with local schools and their administration, but it were certainly at play just a few short years ago.

America's children are being tested into dumbness. They're retaining little to nothing of what's being taught because so much emphasis have been placed on testing. Some otherwise very smart students have failed because of testing and dropped out, and some pretty dumb students have been able and allowed to to test and pass through various means.

August 11, 2013 at 6:36 p.m.
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