Obama’s Call to Cap Standardized Testing: Is it Better?

When President Obama announced on October 24 that he wanted schools to spend no more than two percent of instructional time on standardized testing, it seemed like the announcement educators had been waiting for since he took office in 2008.

Critics, though, think Congressional action could make testing situations worse.

Instead of reversing the No Child Left Behind Act, as many had hoped, the Obama administration reinforced the country’s focus on standardized testing by linking federal subsidies to states’ implementations of Common Core standards for testing K–12 content knowledge. More and more, school communities are complaining about the increasing infringement of mandatory testing on instructional time.

It makes sense, then, that when the U.S. Department of Education released its Testing Action Plan, American Federation of Teachers union president Randi Weingarten found hope in Obama’s call for Congress to enforce his two percent clause. “Parents, students, educators,” she said, “your voice matters and was heard.”

Why Two Percent

Valerie Strauss of The Washington Post asked where two percent came from. The answer, ironically, is New York — a state where 20 percent of students opted out of standardized testing this year, even after Governor Andrew Cuomo had already signed into law in 2014 that no student would spend more than two percent of class time taking standardized tests — one percent for state-level tests, and one percent for district-level tests. His former commissioner of education, John King, will succeed Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education at the end of this year.

A recent report from The Benjamin Center for Public Policy Initiatives at SUNY New Paltz surveyed New York state teachers for grades three through eight about how many instructional minutes they spent preparing students for standardized tests. Time on Test: The Fixed Costs of 3–8 Standardized Testing in New York State examined actual testing time in combination with the “fixed costs” of testing, defined as the necessary process of making possible the conditions for test taking: fulfilling administrative tasks, providing necessary accommodations for students, and reading the directions students need in order to understand what is required of them.

By taking into account the fixed costs of testing with the actual time spent taking the test, the study found that “on average, 185 minutes are dedicating to testing in grades 3–6 and 189 minutes in grades 7–8 during the administration of each daily exam,” which comes to a yearly total of 1,100 minutes for students in grades three through six and 1,134 minutes for students in grades seven and eight. In other words, the amount of time dedicated to state-level testing almost doubles the limit set by the legislature.

So while New York may have been the inspiration for the two percent figure, schools within the state seem to be having trouble adhering to this legislative standard — while also preparing kids for the required exams.

What Prompted the Testing Action Plan

Kate Zernike of the New York Times noted that the timing of Obama’s speech was “prompted in part” by the conclusion of a two-year survey conducted by the Council of Great City Schools. News outlets released the survey’s results on the same day that the president made his announcement.

After studying 66 urban school districts, the Council found that the average urban student took 112 standardized tests between kindergarten and high school graduation. Eighth-graders spent the greatest amount of time testing; in a typical 180-day school year, they spent approximately 20–25 hours on mandatory tests, that is, an average of 4–5 school days, or 2.34 percent of their classroom time — a figure remarkably close to that offered by the Testing Action Plan.

Since the president’s announcement and the survey’s release, reporters across the country have asked administrators how much instructional time their students spend preparing for and taking standardized tests. Many have admitted that they don’t know. The question isn’t as simple as it seems.

Who Meets the Standard

Unlike New York, several other states do not have as clear a picture of how much time is actually dedicated to testing. California State Board of Education President Michael Kirst, for example, says he isn’t sure “what the definition of tests being used in this debate is.” And John Zauner, the executive director of the Georgia School Superintendents Association, questioned how states would separate types of testing aligned with the Common Core: “Two percent of what is what I’d like to know.”

While some states seem not to be able to identify how many hours are dedicated to testing, others are forthcoming with numbers suggesting that their students spend less time than the suggested cap. According to a study conducted by New Jersey Spotlight’s Laura Walters, that state’s schools spend between nine and ten hours (or less than one percent of instructional time) on mandatory testing. In Wyoming, an Assessment Task Force recommended that schools spend one percent or less time on mandatory testing; Steve Newton of Laramie County School District 1 says his district measures below that one percent.

Officials in Oregon say their students also spend less than one percent of their classroom time on these tests. And since 2013, California has cut its standardized testing in half.

What effect would a federal mandate have on these states? Would New Jersey, Wyoming, Oregon, and California need to increase the amount of tests given to meet a two percent quota?

And what about schools that test during more than two percent of classroom time — including, based on the SUNY New Paltz study, New York? This past April, Florida Governor Rick Scott capped that state’s testing at five percent, or 45 hours, a decision that reduced the amount of standardized testing hours that Jeb Bush had ushered into Florida schools while he was governor from 1999 until 2007 — but that still far exceeds the Obama administration’s suggested time limit. Which tests would these schools have to cut in order to stay within federal regulation, the state- or district-level exams? No doubt the curricula have been written and rewritten to accommodate new standards; would they need to be again revised to meet a new standard?

So far, President Obama’s statement has led to more questions than answers, but the White House has said that it will release more specifics regarding testing come January. In the meantime, the president’s two percent announcement has highlighted the crucial word that surfaces in criticism of standardized testing: “time.” And regardless of the changes that may or may not come, teachers and administrators are once again — as with every new development concerning standardized testing — dedicating dwindling professional development opportunities to considering how much time should be spent on standardized testing.

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