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Obama’s flip-flop on standardized tests, explained

Obama now thinks students are tested too much and wants his Education Department to stop it.
Obama now thinks students are tested too much and wants his Education Department to stop it.
(Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Barack Obama made one of the biggest shifts of his presidency this weekend: He morphed into a harsh critic of standardized tests.

After seven years of trying to hold schools and teachers to higher standards — and testing to make sure they meet them — Obama said he's taken it too far.

"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," Obama said, saying he's concerned about "too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning."

Beginning immediately, the Education Department is going to start directing states and districts to spend less time testing and to give fewer tests.

This comes from a president whose education secretary once balked at complaints about the Common Core as just "white suburban moms" finding out "their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought."

That distance — from dismissive to apologetic — shows how fierce the political forces are that drove the debate over standardized testing during the Obama years. His administration has faced an onslaught from unhappy parents who believe education should be more than the stress of a multiple-choice test, and irate teachers unions that don't want teachers' job security tied to the results.

This isn't primarily a fight about how much time kids spend taking tests. It's about the influence that testing has over the curriculum and the classroom the rest of the year, and whether narrowly "teaching to the test" is making education worse. And it's about the political power of teachers unions, which eagerly endorsed Hillary Clinton after seven years sparring with Obama's Education Department.

How Obama pursued a test-heavy agenda

Education Secretary Duncan And HHS Secretary Sebelius Visit A School
Education Secretary Arne Duncan reads to children in 2013.
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Obama has faced a political backlash over standardized testing because his own policies have made tests more important than ever before.

Since they took office in 2009, Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have pushed for states to adopt the more difficult Common Core standards for students, with harder tests to go with them. And they've argued that teachers should be evaluated based in part on how their students perform on these tests.

They cited economic research that found teachers who successfully improved their students' test scores also changed their students' lives in other ways. Their students were eventually more likely to attend college, earned higher salaries, and were less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. Identifying the worst teachers and replacing them with teachers that are just average, the researchers argued, would have a lasting impact on students' lives and earnings.

Pushed by the Obama administration, nearly all states came up with new ways to evaluate their teachers' performance that incorporated test scores and other ways of measuring how much students have learned.

Duncan says he doesn't regret tackling both priorities — harder tests for students, with higher stakes for teachers attached to those tests — at the same time, arguing that education reform was too urgent to wait. But the collision of the two policies created a massive backlash among teachers. Standardized tests got harder, and started being used in the classroom more, just as teachers had more riding on their students' performance.

Teachers unions have been fighting standardized testing since No Child Left Behind passed in 2002, accusing the federal government of a "test and punish" approach because schools could face consequences if their students didn't progress on tests from year to year. But the states' shift to new evaluation systems made test results far more consequential for individual teachers — including teachers at wealthier schools that weren't subject to sanctions under No Child Left Behind.

Teachers hated it.

In a Gallup poll in October 2014, teachers reported generally favorable opinions of using the same standards across states, the goal of the Common Core. Most teachers opposed the associated standardized testing. But the most overwhelmingly negative response was about linking their own evaluations to test scores: 89 percent of teachers opposed it. And 67 percent of teachers strongly agreed that linking evaluations to test results was unfair, a higher share than agreed with other negative statements about standardized tests.

The opposition was strong enough that in 2014, Duncan said, "Testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools," and allowed states to delay implementing the new teacher evaluation systems. But it was too late.

Parents are increasingly skeptical of standardized tests — but divided by race and class

Parents aren't nearly as concerned about the new evaluation systems as teachers are: In the same Gallup poll where teachers nearly unanimously opposed them, a majority of parents favored linking evaluations to test scores. But unions have been able to harness growing skepticism about tests more broadly, and about the Common Core in particular, to feed into their fight.

Standardized tests have become increasingly unpopular as controversy over the Common Core grew. Worries that testing was corrupting student learning started with No Child Left Behind: In state and national surveys, teachers and principals reported concentrating their time and money on language arts and math, according to a 2008 report from the Urban Institute and RAND.

In some cases, they were reduced to teaching test-taking tricks. Some Florida schools managed to avoid flunking the state's accountability system by telling students to put the words "first," "then," and "finally" at the beginning of each paragraph in a three-paragraph essay.

But those concerns weren't widely shared among all parents. In 2005, well into the implementation of No Child Left Behind, a Gallup poll found only 18 percent of parents thought too much public school time was devoted to test preparation.

As recently as 2013, 61 percent of parents said in an Associated Press poll that they thought kids in public schools were tested about the right amount; only 26 percent said they were tested too much.

But unlike earlier reforms, the Common Core and teacher evaluations applied to everyone — including, just as Duncan had implied with his "white suburban moms" comment, parents who thought their schools were just fine.

And the backlash against the Common Core — a cause that united both the left and the right — has been accompanied by growing concern about standardized testing. In a poll this fall from Gallup, 64 percent of public school parents said there was too much emphasis on testing in their local schools.

Teachers unions, fighting the use of test scores in teacher evaluations, nourished this growing opposition to testing among parents. In Florida, they supported a bill to limit standardized testing in local schools. In New Jersey, they aired ads against standardized testing that accused the tests of making children cry.

The campaign was most successful in New York, where the teachers union had picked public fights with Gov. Andrew Cuomo over the new evaluation system, and where one in five students eventually sat out the state-required standardized tests this spring.

Parents' opinions of standardized tests were divided sharply by race and class. A New York Times analysis of schools in New York that opted out of standardized tests found that more students chose not to take the test in wealthier districts, while opt-out rates in poor schools remained generally low. In some Long Island school districts, opt-out rates reached 80 percent.

National civil rights organizations and other advocates for low-income children and children of color are generally supportive of standardized testing. A major goal of No Child Left Behind was to highlight how states were providing a substandard education to students with disabilities, students learning English, and black and Latino students.

"If we don’t have that information that’s generated by tests, we can’t work to make schools and systems more responsive to the needs of low-income kids and kids of color," Daria Hall, the director of K-12 policy for Education Trust, a group that supports testing, said in July.

How Obama wants to cut back on the number of tests

After seven years of arguing that standardized testing can help students, Obama has admitted he's gone too far. The Education Department has pledged to immediately begin helping districts and states give fewer tests.

They've promised to give grants to states to review the tests they're giving and determine which ones to cut. They plan to provide specific instructions on how states can use other federal money to study and cut tests.

Most importantly, they're also backing down, at least slightly, on linking test scores to teachers' evaluations. The department will work with states to reduce testing in subjects other than language arts and math, meaning that student achievement will have to be evaluated some other way rather than making students take tests in those subjects. They've also promised more flexibility for states on how much students' scores should count in evaluating teachers, the central issue underlying the debate.

That's a bigger deal than simply cutting down the number of tests students take. Despite the concern about spending too much time on tests, studies have found students only spend about 2 percent of their classroom time taking tests.

Reducing the stakes attached to those tests, on the other hand, has the potential to actually make a difference. The unions celebrated.

"It’s a big deal that the president and the secretaries of education — both current and future — are saying that they get it and are pledging to address the fixation on testing in tangible ways," Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said in a statement.

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