The Obama administration executed a significant about-face in its education policy Saturday, calling for a cap on the amount of time students spend taking standardized tests.
The move comes amid growing opposition from teachers and many parents who assert that high-stakes testing has classrooms focused on rote preparation and has squelched creativity.
The announcement breaks a pattern of more than a decade of efforts by both the Obama and George W. Bush administrations to emphasize standardized tests as a primary way to hold schools and teachers accountable for what students learn. Education reform groups as well as civil rights organizations have backed testing as a way to ensure that school districts provide better instruction to poor and minority students.
But in the new policy, the administration acknowledged the focus on testing was "consuming too much instructional time and creating undue stress for educators and students." It called on states and school districts to cap the time spent on assessments at no more than 2% of classroom hours and pledged to ask Congress to enact the limit into law.
"Students do best on high-quality assessments that actually measure critical thinking and complex skills when they have been exposed to strong instruction, which should be the focus" of the school day, the Department of Education wrote in a memo outlining its new plan.
The change in policy also has a major political implication. The administration's push for testing has alienated teacher unions, which are a major force in the Democratic Party, creating a breach that has proved troublesome for the party's front-runner in the presidential race, Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The country's two major teacher unions voiced support for the new plan.
President Obama announced the policy shift in a video posted on Facebook.
"Learning is about so much more than filling in the right bubble," he said, calling for tests to be high-quality, a limited part of the curriculum and just one measurement of a student's progress.
The Obama administration's new effort to streamline testing is an attempt to roll back some of the mandates of the No Child Left Behind Act implemented during the Bush administration. Such changes are also in discussion on Capitol Hill, where amendments to the law are under consideration that would preserve annual reading and math exams but end their status as the sole measure of how schools and teachers are performing.
Critics of testing requirements welcomed the administration's move but cautioned that much more needs to be done to overhaul educational assessments.
"Now is the time for concrete steps to reverse counterproductive testing policies, not just more hollow rhetoric and creation of yet another study commission," said Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a group that advocates for better educational testing.
The American Federation of Teachers, the largest union representing classroom instructors, also favors less testing.
"The fixation on high-stakes testing hasn't moved the needle on student achievement," Randi Weingarten, the group's president, said in a statement. "Testing should help inform instruction, not drive instruction. We need to get back to focusing on the whole child — teaching our kids how to build relationships, how to be resilient and how to think critically."
The issue of how much and how often students should be tested is one that education officials and parents have grappled with for years.
Of equal concern to many is how much time students spend preparing for tests, particularly since the enactment of the No Child Left Behind law and the more recent Common Core academic standards.
Students now spend up to 25 hours each year taking tests, according to a study released Saturday by the Council of Great City Schools, which reviewed the country's 66 largest school districts. The study found that between kindergarten and the 12th grade, students are given about 112 standardized exams. For the average eighth-grader, the council's report said testing alone amounts to 2.3% of classroom time. That did not include additional time spent preparing for the tests.
But the council did not reveal whether that was too much or too little, as each student is different. "How much constitutes too much time is really difficult to answer," said Michael Casserly, the council's executive director.
David J. Menefee-Libey, a politics professor at Pomona College in Claremont and an educational specialist, said he was "surprised" to see the White House's move, "given how deeply testing has been embedded in the Obama administration's approach to education from the very beginning." He said he was skeptical that the administration had simply reached a research-based conclusion and wondered whether the announcement was not "completely political, given the growing bipartisan unpopularity of testing."
"There's not much to be gained politically by hanging on to the former view," he said.
Obama's move was welcomed by Clinton, who has been caught between the push by teachers unions to relax testing requirements and a White House that had shown little sign of backing down.
"Standardized tests must be worth taking, high-quality, time-limited, fair, fully transparent to students and parents, just one of multiple measures and tied to improving learning," Clinton said in a statement, adding that she "embraced" Obama's new initiative.
As Clinton courted the unions for their endorsement, the rank and file resisted. Her reluctance to map out a detailed policy agenda that would scale back testing requirements and slow the spread of charter schools was a major sticking point. Clinton had been vague about her education plans, using language that signals she is troubled by the proliferation of testing without pledging any concrete steps to scale it back.
When the American Federation of Teachers endorsed Clinton early in the summer, there was an intense backlash from members who do not trust she would steer the Department of Education in a new direction. The National Education Assn., the nation's largest union — which also backed Obama's plan — only endorsed Clinton after she upended her schedule to appear at its Washington headquarters to make a personal appeal to its board. The leaders of the union's New Jersey and Massachusetts chapters had urged withholding an endorsement until candidates were more specific about education policy.
But along with the politically powerful teachers unions — a key source of boots on the ground in an election — Clinton has been grappling with equally influential forces on the other side of the debate. Obama administration school accountability measures have proved popular not just with parents, but also with some of Clinton's most generous donors.
Los Angeles billionaire Eli Broad, for example, is one of the nation's most aggressive proponents of charter schools. His plans pose an existential threat to the unions. He is also a longtime friend and supporter of the Clintons, a relationship that rank-and-file activists in the teachers union repeatedly point to in warning that Clinton is not a reliable ally.
Outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his nominated successor, John B. King Jr., will meet with Obama at the White House on Monday to discuss how to reduce the amount of time students spend on what the administration called "redundant or low-quality tests."
"We're going to work with states, school districts, teachers and parents to make sure that we're not obsessing about testing," Obama pledged.
Staff writers Evan Halper in Washington and Joy Resmovits contributed to this report.
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