New U.S. Education chief visits Delaware to talk testing

 (From left to right) Governor Jack Markell, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, and U.S. Senator Tom Carper talk testing at a Thursday event in downtown Wilmington.(Avi Wolfman-Arendt/WHYY)

(From left to right) Governor Jack Markell, Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King, and U.S. Senator Tom Carper talk testing at a Thursday event in downtown Wilmington.(Avi Wolfman-Arendt/WHYY)

The nation’s highest education official visited Delaware Thursday to address one of the state’s hottest education issues–standardized testing.

Acting U.S. Secretary of Education, John King, stopped in Wilmington to praise the state’s new testing inventory, an effort to catalog and eventually reduce the number of standardized tests students take.

“The conversation you’ve begun in Delaware around smart assessment is important and critical to the country,” King said during a round table discussion with leading First State education officials.

The Wilmington visit was King’s sixth stop on the “Opportunity Across America Tour,” his first major press push since taking over for former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan at the beginning of the year.

Duncan was a frequent guest in Delaware during his seven years as the U.S. Secretary of Education, and the First State has long had a cozy relationship with federal officials. Delaware was one of the first two states to win Race to the Top money from the Obama administration.

King’s visit comes, however, amid growing resistance to federal education reforms in the First State.

Last year, legislators overwhelmingly passed a bill that would have allowed parents to opt their children out of the Smarter Balanced assessment. Introduced last year and developed with funding from the federal government, Smarter Balanced has become a whipping boy for legislators and activists who say the state focuses too much on testing and uses results to unfairly punish teachers, schools, and districts.

Markell vetoed the so-called “Opt Out” bill, and a recent attempt to override that veto failed convincingly. Still, state officials have acknowledged the testing backlash and the mood Thursday reflected that acknowledgment.

Even longtime backers of Governor Jack Markell’s education agenda questioned Delaware’s testing regimen. State Representative Earl Jaques, D-Glasgow, relayed concerns that results from the Smarter Balanced assessment don’t come back quickly enough for parents or teachers to make use of them.

“The ultimate question comes from parents who say, ‘What good is this test for my student?’,” Jaques said.

King agreed that test results should be both meaningful and useful to parents and teachers. He also argued that tests ought not chew up too much instruction time and added that big standardized tests shouldn’t be the only gauge for progress. Governor Markell agreed.

“Bottom line is we need to be smart in our approach and find the appropriate balance,” Markell said.

King mentioned the federal government will issue guidance in the coming weeks on how states can start conversations on “smart assessment” and access federal money to facilitate initiatives like Delaware’s testing inventory.

Delaware launched its “inventory assessment” in March with the goal of eliminating duplicate tests and reducing the amount of time students spend testing.  An analysis of every district and charter school testing docket is due by the end of the month. Recommendations for action will follow at some point in the spring.

At least one district, however, is already in test-slashing mode. The Colonial School District, which covers New Castle and a small slice of Wilmington, announced at the meeting it has already eliminated eight hours of testing for its fifth graders, 11 hours for its high school juniors, and more than 13 hours for its eighth grade students.

The state, meanwhile, decided earlier this month to replace the 11th grade Smarter Balanced test with the SAT. Since Delaware’s high school juniors already take the SAT in school, the move will reduce testing time in one of the most assessed grades.

Despite the focus on test reduction, officials on Thursday defended the need for comprehensive assessments. Many argued standardized tests provide critical information on how Delaware’s schools are doing and whether taxpayer money is well spent.

“In God we trust, all others show data,” said Debra Heffernan, D-Brandywine Hundred. “It’s very important for the system as a whole to have accountability.”

Greg Lavelle, R-Sharpley, agreed. “I think we do have to test the system as a whole,” said Lavelle. “We spend a third of our budget on it.”

Lavelle questioned, however, the federal government’s mandate that states test students in grades three through eight and once in high school. He also wondered whether testing companies were exploiting states and school districts by selling them on the need for increased assessment.

King agreed that some test-makers mislead education decision-makers when they peddle exams as a panacea rather than one tool to help improve outcomes.

“It’s the like the 2 a.m. infomercial,” King said. “The answer that you need is just inside this box.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly quoted Rep. Debra Heffernan. The correct quotation is “In God we trust, all others show data.” Originally Heffernan was quoted as saying, “In God we trust, for all others we test.”

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