Arne Duncan: A test for
By Arne Duncan
As a parent, I want to know how my children are
progressing in school each year. The more I know, the more I can help them
build upon their strengths and interests and work on their weaknesses. The
more I know, the better I can reinforce at home each night the hard work of
their teachers during the school day.
The standardized tests my kids take are one gauge
on the dashboard, but parents and educators know that tests are not the
Last week, state education chiefs and district
superintendents announced a plan to examine their assessment systems,
ensure that assessments are high-quality and cut back testing that doesn't
meet that bar or is redundant. I welcome that important step.
Parents have a right to know how much their
children are learning; teachers, schools and districts need to know how
students are progressing; and policymakers must know where students are
excelling, improving and struggling. A focus on measuring student learning
has had real benefits, especially for our most vulnerable students,
ensuring that they are being held to the same rigorous standards as their
well-off peers and shining a light on achievement gaps.
However, many have expressed concern about
low-quality and redundant tests. And in some places, tests — and
preparation for them — dominate the calendar and culture of schools,
causing undue stress.
Policymakers at every level bear responsibility
here — and that includes me and my department. We will support state and
district leaders in taking on this issue and provide technical assistance
to those who seek it.
To be clear: I strongly believe in using
high-quality assessments, including annual tests, as one (but only one)
part of how adults improve instruction and hold themselves responsible for
students' progress. With my own kids, I know parent-teacher conferences,
grades and other feedback round out the picture of whether they're on
After a generation of watching other nations
surpass ours educationally, the United States is putting the building
blocks in place for schools that will once again lead the world. But for
this effort to pay off, political leaders must be both strong and flexible
in support of the nation's educators.
America's schools are changing because our world
is changing. Success in today's world requires critical thinking, adaptability,
collaboration, problem solving and creativity — skills that go beyond the
basics for which schools were designed in the past. But in recent decades,
other countries have retooled their schools faster than we have.
We must do better. A great education isn't just
what every parent wants for his or her child; it's a necessity for security
in a globally competitive economy.
The good news is that, thanks to the hard work of
educators, students and communities, America's schools have made historic
achievements in recent years. The U.S. high school graduation rate is at an
all-time high, and the places most committed to bold change have made major
progress on the nation's report card. Since 2000, high school dropout rates
have been cut in half for Hispanic students and more than a third for
African Americans. College enrollment by black and Hispanic students has
Perhaps even more important, educators are taking
fundamental steps to help reclaim the United States' leadership in
education. Throughout the country, students are being taught to higher
standards, by teachers empowered to be creative and to teach critical
thinking skills. Last year, nearly 30 states, led by both Republicans and
Democrats, increased funding for early learning.
Yet change this big is always hard, and political
leaders — myself included — must provide support and make course
corrections where needed. We are asking a great deal of our educators and
students. Despite their hard work, and a growing embrace of many of these
changes, one topic — standardized testing — sometimes diverts energy from
this ambitious set of changes.
Fortunately, states and districts are taking on
this challenge — including places such as Rhode Island and New York state;
St. Paul, Minn.; Nashville; and the District of Columbia, where leaders are
already taking actions to limit testing. As they and others move forward, I
look forward to highlighting progress others can learn from.
States are also leading the way on improving test
quality, building assessments that move beyond bubble tests and measure
critical thinking skills and writing; the Education Department has provided
$360 million to two consortia of states to support that work. And to reduce
stress on teachers during this year of transition, my department in August
offered states new flexibility on connecting teacher evaluation to test
It's vital that political leaders stand behind
changes that will prepare our young people for success in the real world —
changes that educators have worked so hard to get underway. We must also
stand behind states that have increased standards for learning, and where
adults are holding themselves responsible for the progress of all students.
We must stand strong for responsible and equitable school funding. We must
stand strong for making both preschool and college accessible to all.
And we must stand strong in the knowledge — not
the belief but the knowledge — that great schools make a difference in the
lives of all children.
Arne Duncan is U.S. secretary of education.
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