RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
American students take a reported 112 standardized tests between pre-kindergarten and 12th grade. Yesterday, President Obama said that's too many.
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BARACK OBAMA: Our kids should only take tests that are worth taking, tests that are high quality, aimed at good instruction and make sure everybody's on track. Second, tests shouldn't occupy too much classroom time or crowd out teaching and learning. Tests should enhance teaching and learning.
MARTIN: The Department of Education has now released an action plan to do just that. For more, we turned to Anya Kamenetz of our NPR Ed team. Hey, Anya, thanks for being here.
ANYA KAMENETZ: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: Is this the Obama administration reversing its own policy?
KAMENETZ: Well, you could say it's a little bit of backpedaling. You know, the Obama administration, up to this point, has upheld this Bush era policy of annual testing of every student every year in third through eighth grades, plus once in high school. And they're not dropping that now.
But what you do have is the administration and, including the president, using the bully pulpit a lot more forcefully than they have before to weigh in on an issue that's become a real boogieman for students and teachers and families.
And that's the sheer amount of time that students spend taking standardized tests. And what's also significant is that the administration acknowledges that it has played a role in what you call the mission creep of testing.
MARTIN: What's this going to mean for schools? Will it be easy for them to implement these changes that the president is suggesting now?
KAMENETZ: Well, the baseline federal testing requirements are not changing. So the House and Senate versions of an update to the federal testing law are currently pending resolution. But they're going to keep annual testing in math and reading. The changes here that are being proposed are really about overall tweaks to state testing programs, cutting back on testing, auditing testing and that kind of thing.
MARTIN: OK, so you say the annual testing requirement is going to stay in place. What does that entail? Does that mean students are only tested in math and reading once a year?
KAMENETZ: Well, it depends on who you ask. I mean, the Council of Great City Schools, which is all the big urban school districts, just released a two-year study showing that most of the standardized tests students take are actually district requirements, including benchmark diagnostic practice exams and, of course, exams, tests in other subjects like science and social studies.
And these can often be redundant and, many people feel, unnecessary. So with this action plan, the Department of Education is actually offering grants to states to go over and look at all the tests that they give and try to streamline and reduce these requirements. And at the same time, as a guideline, they're suggesting a cap by states - to cap state-required testing to 2 percent of classroom time.
MARTIN: Students should only spend 2 percent of their entire classroom time on tests?
KAMENETZ: On these state-mandated standardized tests. This has nothing do with their regular kinds of pop quizzes or end of course tests that teachers give.
MARTIN: Got it. OK, so how are teachers responding to this decision?
KAMENETZ: Well, the response has been pretty positive from folks like Randi Weingarten, the president of the Major Teachers Union. You know, one of the major objections that teachers unions have had to these - the testing that goes on right - in schools right now is there are federal laws that encourage/require states to include test scores and teacher evaluations.
In part of this action plan, the Obama administration is signaling that they're going to allow a lot more flexibility to states in designing these teacher evaluations. And that is one of the ways in which they're going to try to cool the ire that has risen among students and families and teachers in response to so many tests.
MARTIN: Anya Kamenetz of NPR's Ed team. She was speaking to us from our studios in New York. Anya also happens to be the author or the book "The Test." Anya, thanks so much for explaining it to us.
KAMENETZ: Thanks, Rachel.
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