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Russo: Duncan's Legacy

Helping schools streamline testing might be the secretary’s best move.

There's no more money to hand out, and Congress probably won't authorize any new programs. Education Secretary Arne Duncan's first-term initiatives (school turnarounds, RTTT) are having mixed results. Teachers and parents are rebelling against the Common Core—and white suburban moms will be scowling at Duncan for the foreseeable future, thanks to his recent remarks.

But Secretary Duncan has at least one thing he could do with his remaining time in office that could be both effective at preserving his initiatives and popular with educators and parents. He could begin to address concerns over test proliferation.

Duncan has had a very good run in terms of media coverage, White House support, and autonomy—even if it didn't necessarily result in dramatic short-term improvements. However, 2013 was a tough year for the secretary, the federal education agenda, and standards-based approaches to school reform. Nowhere is this clearer than on the testing front, where parents and educators are protesting the pretests, midyear assessments, and other exams that have proliferated in recent years—as well as the test prep that takes up classroom time.

The testing increases vary enormously from district to district. And some of the assessments may be improvements over previous versions. But no one knows exactly how many tests have been added to the basic reading and math requirement—and that's part of the problem. If Duncan used some of his remaining time in office to take on the test proliferation issue, serving as a watchdog against overtesting, he would also effectively be protecting the Common Core assessments during a very vulnerable time.

Doing so wouldn't take much money (by federal standards) or require congressional authorization (though lawmakers might want to sign on). He'd be taking the reasonable position that testing is useful, but that duplicative and unnecessarily burdensome testing should be cut back. Some state and district officials might even welcome a push from Washington to pare things back.

Duncan could begin by tracking and reporting recent changes in state and district testing, establishing reasonable guidelines for states to set in terms of appropriate duration and frequency, and giving states and districts incentives to streamline duplicative legacy testing regimes that may no longer be required.

Some districts are already doing this, thanks to protests or because of their own misgivings about overloading students with testing. The Department of Education has already told several states that they don't have to "double-test" this spring (administer both current and Common Core field tests in the same academic year).

Duncan taking on an issue like this might seem too small or too soft for the Obama White House, which has focused thus far on lofty initiatives like international standards and universal health care. But as the administration heads into the heart of its second term, it may find that small-bore ideas are appropriate and well received.

And it wouldn't be the first time. During the embattled second term of the Clinton White House, federal officials touted things as minor as school uniforms, which were popular, accessible, and didn't require gobs of additional funding.

Sometimes, smaller is ­better—and addressing parents' and teachers' legitimate concerns might be a good way to preserve the larger effort to help students reach higher levels. There's little argument that many states' tests have been set too low, and vary widely, and that tougher, better tests are ­needed. Since confidence in testing is low right now, restoring it by showing consideration and reasonableness isn't a bad idea at all.    

—Winter 2014—  

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