Huffman: Commissioner defends need for school testing

Huffman: Commissioner defends need for school testing

August 11th, 2013 by Kevin S. Huffman in Opinion Columns

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.