An Open Letter to America’s Parents and Teachers: Let’s Make Our Testing Smarter

This post originally appeared on the White House Blog.

Here’s a simple question: If your kids had more free time at school, what would you want them to do with it?

Here’s a simple question: If your kids had more free time at school, what would you want them to do with it?

If you’re like most parents, here’s what I suspect you wouldn’t want your children to be doing with their extra time in the classroom: Taking more standardized tests. I certainly wouldn’t want that for my girls.

In moderation, I believe smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids’ progress in school. As a parent, I want to know how my kids are doing, and I want their teachers to know that, too. As President, I want to hold all of us accountable for making sure every child, everywhere, is learning what he or she needs to be successful.

But when I look back on the great teachers who shaped my life, what I remember isn’t the way they prepared me to take a standardized test. What I remember is the way they taught me to believe in myself. To be curious about the world. To take charge of my own learning so that I could reach my full potential. They inspired me to open up a window into parts of the world I’d never thought of before.

These aren’t the kinds of things you can easily measure by filling in the right bubble. In letters, emails, and conversations around the country, I’ve heard from parents who worry that too much testing is keeping their kids from learning some of life’s most important lessons. I’ve heard from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students. I want to fix that.

I’ve asked the Department of Education to work aggressively with states and school districts to make sure that any tests we use in our classroom meet three basic principles.

First, our kids should only take tests that are worth taking – tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction, and make sure everyone is on track.

Second, tests shouldn’t occupy too much classroom time, or crowd out teaching and learning.

And third, tests should be just one source of information. We should use classroom work, surveys, and other factors to give us an all-around look at how our students and schools are doing.

You can learn more in our new Testing Action Plan.

The Council of the Great City Schools – a group of the nation’s largest urban public school systems – recently released a new report that surveyed standardized testing in our schools and found that the average student in some school systems are taking 112 standardized tests before high school graduation. The report shows how much opportunity there is to eliminate redundant and uncoordinated tests — and free up more classroom time for teaching and learning. You can take a look at that here.

We’re going to work with states, school districts, teachers, and parents to make sure the principles I outlined are reflected in classrooms across our country – and together, we’re going to help prepare our kids for a lifetime of success.

If you’ve got thoughts on this topic, I want to hear them. If you’ve got thoughts on this topic, I want to hear them.  SHARE THEM HERE.

Watch the President’s announcement on Facebook.

ED Mailbag: Arne on Standardized Testing and 360° Accountability

Secretary Arne Duncan recently responded to two questions he received via social media.

He first addressed a question from Nate concerning the overreliance on standardized testing. Duncan explained that No Child Left Behind places too much weight on one test, leading to a narrow curriculum. With waivers from NCLB, more than half of the states are creatively moving away from single test scores to other critical factors in closing the achievement gap, like graduation rates and career readiness.

Another inquirer, Monica, asked about how parents and students – not just teachers – can be held accountable for student success. Duncan agreed wholeheartedly and said schools need “360 degree accountability.”

“I tell students all the time it is their job to get a great education,” said Duncan. “Nobody can do that for them.” Tennessee and other states are developing new, innovative systems for measuring parental influence on student progress, models that Duncan said he will be watching closely. “We have to stop pointing fingers,” Secretary Duncan said. “Accountability has to be shared responsibility.”

Watch the video:

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Alexandra Strott is a student at Middlebury College and an intern in ED’s Office of Communications and Outreach