Duncan Changes the Rules: No More ‘Teaching to the Test’

Finally, this might be the change that I and millions of educators have been awaiting. Arnie Duncan, Secretary of Education, announced on Saturday a new path for American school assessments to begin after development by a consortium of member states in 2014-15. The $330 million project will be managed by Achieve Inc. and involve 44 states.

Unfortunately for millions of students assessments during the No Child Left Behind era have been about students filling in bubbles on state tests—the resultant scanned pencil marks being made into a critical ranking of public schools. “Teaching to the test” became the mantra of too many classroom teachers and principals. The dumbing-down of the American curriculum was underway. Increased boredom was the complaint by students.

The tests were somewhat linked to the content standards now taught in California classrooms, but came at the end of the year so as not to be used by the teacher of record to inform their instruction or provide feedback to students.  Many educational researchers, like Robert Marzano, complained that the content standards were an inch deep and a mile wide and the feedback system to students to progress very limited.

Grades are never an effective feedback system and usually mean a different thing to each teacher in the school when effort, motivation, behavior, late homework etc. play roles in determining grades, in some cases, more than the actual knowledge a student possesses on the content. Parents should be wary of grades in the current system of schools.

Speaking directly to non-graduating students at commencement, valedictorian Erica Goldson at Coxsakle-Athens High School near Albany, NY, said, “Demand a setting that will provide you with intellectual capabilities that allow you to expand your mind instead of directing it. Demand that you be interested in class. Demand that the excuse, ‘you have to learn it for the test’ is not good enough for you…For those of you who work within the system…I know that you did not become a teacher or administrator to see your students bored.”  Worth nine minutes of your time if you are interested in education see Ericka’s entire Valedictory address on YouTube.
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These new assessments might be the game-changer to Erica’s dilemma. According to Duncan the new tests are to be computer-based and be able to measure higher-order skills that the “bubble” tests never could. “The use of smarter technology in assessments makes it possible to assess students by asking them to design products of experiments, to manipulate parameters, run tests and record data.” The new testing protocol will allow for administration multiple times during the year to provide students essential feedback and inform the instruction of the classroom teacher.

Assessments in order to work must be authentic and designed to measure what we want students to be able to do, for them to become productive and engaged citizens. Bubble testing was the antithesis of this goal. From what I have read the new assessments will try to assess student speeches and essays multiple times during the year. These essays and speeches will become part of the student’s permanent portfolio of work.

The assessments will allow students to give free response answers instead of figuring out the best answer or none of the above from multiple choices. As a middle school principal I had some very smart students who filled in the bubbles on the current answer sheets with attempting to design a picture based on their bubbling. They thought the fill-in-bubble testing was beneath them.  I agreed with them in private or with their parents once I called them in to discuss the issue.

This new venture appears to be moving us in the right direction for American education. Congratulations, Mr. Duncan, I cannot wait to see the work Achieve Inc in 2014.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.


  1. I am an elementary school principal in Silicon Valley.  While what you described might indeed be a step in the right direction, I have serious doubts that any one size fits all testing system will work in the United States. 

    In a country as large as ours, with a population as varied, how does anyone think that a centralized power in D.C. would be able to come up with a single, standarized system to meet the needs of all children?  A child in Silicon Valley is going to have very different strengths and weaknesses when compared to a child in Pensacola, FL.  We need to recognize this and move beyond standards set by the Federal Government. 

    I think we should get rid of the Department of Education and turn our attention and funding to our communities.  When control over education is in the hands of parents, teachers, principals, and local school boards, we will see a renaissance in American Education.

  2. I don’t know what planet DiSalvo lives on but here on Earth, students who apply themselves, study, attend class, and make an effort to learn the subject material usually find themselves scoring well on tests.
    Of course, DiSalvo prefers to lavish attention and resources on the slackers and whiners instead and after a lifetime in the education business still doesn’t realize he’s being manipulated. Outsmarted by spoiled kids using the tried and true children’s ploy of crying, “I’m bored!”. Those kids have got you so well trained, Joe, that you’re willing to throw out what works and give them exactly what they want, thereby taking spoiled children and after a few years of “education”, unleashing them on society as spoiled adults. Way to go.
    You know, our grandparents weren’t as stupid as you seem to think. They knew that teaching isn’t all that complicated an endeavour. Perhaps instead of always seeking new, “innovative” education techniques you should look back a few decades and see what actually works. It wan’t until the last 30 years or so that educators have become so mystified as to how to do their jobs.

    • They should just do away with the concept of requiring teachers to be Education majors in order to teach at the high school and middle school levels.  History majors should teach history, Math majors should teach math, etc.

  3. Arne Duncan.

    Yeah, right.


    Arne Duncan’s Choice.

    Washington, D.C.‘s school voucher program for low-income kids isn’t dead yet. But the Obama Administration seems awfully eager to expedite its demise.

    About 1,700 kids currently receive $7,500 vouchers to attend private schools under the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and 99% of them are black or Hispanic. The program is a huge hit with parents—there are four applicants for every available scholarship—and the latest Department of Education evaluation showed significant academic gains.

    Nevertheless, Congress voted in March to phase out the program after the 2009-10 school year unless it is reauthorized by Congress and the D.C. City Council. The Senate is scheduled to hold hearings on the program this month, and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has promised proponents floor time to make their case. So why is Education Secretary Arne Duncan proceeding as if the program’s demise is a fait accompli?

    Mr. Duncan is not only preventing new scholarships from being awarded but also rescinding scholarship offers that were made to children admitted for next year. In effect, he wants to end a successful program before Congress has an opportunity to consider reauthorizing it. This is not what you’d expect from an education reformer, and several Democrats in Congress have written him to protest.

    We know that Barack and Michelle Obama have opted out of public schools in D.C.—as they also did in Chicago—and chosen a private school for their own girls. So have 44% of Senators and 36% of Representatives, according to a new Heritage Foundation report. Less well known is that Mr. Duncan has exercised another, far more common kind of school choice for his family.

    Science magazine recently asked Mr. Duncan where his daughter attends school and “how important was the school district in your decision about where to live?” He responded: “She goes to Arlington [Virginia] public schools. That was why we chose where we live, it was the determining factor . . . I didn’t want to try to save the country’s children and our educational system and jeopardize my own children’s education.” It certainly is easier to champion public schools when you have your pick of the better ones (like the Duncans) or the means to send your children to a private school (like the Obamas).

    The Education Department released its annual evaluation of the D.C. program last month—tellingly, without a press release or media briefing—and it showed that voucher recipients are reading nearly a half-grade ahead of their peers who didn’t receive a scholarship. These academic benefits are compounding over time. The study revealed that the program’s earliest participants are 19 months ahead of public school peers in reading after three years. Nationwide, black 12th graders as a group score lower on reading tests than white 8th graders. The D.C. voucher program is closing this achievement gap.

    See if you can follow this political syllogism. President Obama and his Education Secretary have repeatedly promised to support “what works,” regardless of ideology. The teachers unions adamantly oppose school vouchers, whether or not they work. Ergo, Messrs. Obama and Duncan decide to end a D.C. school voucher program that works and force poor kids back into schools where Messrs. Obama and Duncan would never send their own children. What a disgrace.

  4. Today’s NY Times published an article that substantiates the premise of my column. See “Testing, the Chinese Way” by Elisabeth Rosenthal. More regular formative assessments for all students that provide quick feedback is one key piece of solving our troubled school system.

    Joseph Di Salvo

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