Education Secretary Duncan: Too much focus on testing

Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers President Nina Esposito-Visgitis has heard the complaints about standardized testing across the country, just not from U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

In a blog post Thursday, Mr. Duncan said, “I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools …”

On Mr. Duncan’s watch, standardized tests have become increasingly important in schools. To apply for federal Race to the Top grants, states had to pledge to use student performance in teacher evaluation.

Now Mr. Duncan says the federal department will allow states to apply to delay the use of student test scores in teacher evaluation by one year.

“We will be working in concert with other educators and leaders to get this right,” said Mr. Duncan.

 Pennsylvania already used such scores as a part of teacher evaluation for 2013-14. State Education Department spokesman Tim Eller said there is no plan to seek a delay, noting the evaluation system is a state law passed by the Legislature.

In his remarks, Mr. Duncan emphasized three points he’s heard from educators: Educators shouldn’t be held accountable during the transition to new tests; standardized tests focus too much on basic skills instead of critical thinking and deeper learning; and testing and test prep take up too much time.

“Testing should never be the main focus of our schools,” he wrote. “Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students — not just in a few subjects, and not just in ’academic’ areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success.”

In some places, he said the “sheer quantity” of testing is an issue. “Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress. This issue is a priority for us, and we’ll continue to work throughout the fall on efforts to cut back on over-testing.”

But Mr. Duncan hasn’t given up on testing, saying …“let me be clear: Assessment is a vital part of teaching and earning, but it should be one part (and only one part) of how adults hold themselves responsible for students’ progress.” 

He recognized that a “fair chunk” of the responsibility for some of the testing issues “sits with me and my department,” saying he moved forward with a “whole lot of changes simultaneously” because of the urgency to improve education.

Ms. Esposito-Visgitis said she was “delighted” to hear of Mr. Duncan’s remarks, saying he had “finally listened to teachers and parents.”

She said school districts can’t be blamed for the test overload. “It’s what they’ve been directed to do,” she said, citing the state and federal government.

Jessie Ramey, a Point Breeze parent who is author of the blog Yinzercation, said, “I am delighted to have Secretary Duncan talking about the consequences of high stakes testing on our students, but it’s really federal policy that is driving the increase in testing on students.”

If Mr. Duncan is serious about addressing testing issues, she said, “It’s a sea change.”

Mr. Duncan’s remarks can be found at

Education writer Eleanor Chute: or 412-263-1955.

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