Opposition Underplayed In Last Week’s Test Reduction Coverage

Over the weekend, the Council of Great City Schools’ head Michael Casserly put out an oped opposing the Obama 2 percent testing cap.

“One of [the Obama administration’s] proposals, however, stands out as a singularly bad idea: a blanket cap on the amount of testing time. This strikes us as a classic example of Washington trying to solve a political problem instead of the real problem. The limitation doesn’t address the underlying fact that tests aren’t well coordinated or aligned. It wouldn’t solve the considerable redundancy of testing. And it doesn’t address issues of test quality or the inappropriate use of tests.”

Perhaps I’m the only one, but this took me by surprise. 

Last week’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Obama testing plan and the Great City report included some mention of Casserly’s objections, but didn’t make prominent mention of the fact that the nation’s big-city superintendents aren’t supportive of the White House plan. (Apparently the state chiefs aren’t big fans, either.).

If the big city superintendents and state chiefs were opposed to the White House plan, you’d think that would have been a BIG part of the coverage.  But it wasn’t. Take a look at the headlines: 

Obama encouraging limits on standardized student tests AP

Ed. Dept. Outlines Steps to Help States and Districts Cut Back PK12

Study says standardized testing is overwhelming schools Washington Post

Obama proposes capping testing at 2% of classroom time Los Angeles Times

Obama Administration Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools

Ed Dept.: Too Much Testing, Partly Our Fault Politico

President Obama Calls To Curb Number Of Standardized Tests NPR

To be fair, the NYT story (Obama Administration Calls for Limits on Testing in Schools ) mentions the Casserly concerns: “What happens if somebody puts a cap on testing, and to meet the cap ends up eliminating tests that could actually be helpful, or leaves the redundancy in the test and gets rid of a test that teachers can use to inform their instruction?” 

Others may have mentioned it as well — but it’s clearly not something that was emphasized or considered newsworthy.

I’ve asked some of the reporters who worked on the story — as well as the Great City folks — for an explanation of what happened, and will let you know what if anything I hear back.  So far, no one seems to want to talk. So I’m left to speculate: 

One possible explanation is that the Administration found out the Great City report was coming out and succeeded in getting their action plan out ahead of time, effectively muting/swamping the report. That would explain the strange timing. (The story started coming out on Saturday, while many education reporters were at an EWA event in Chicago.) If it was given to them on embargo on Friday they might not have had time to figure out or weigh the importance of districts and state chiefs being against it.

Another way to look at what happened is that the Great City folks and Chiefs were doing their best to go along with the White House and muted their opposition to the plan. After all, Casserly appeared with Duncan on PBS last week (above) and didn’t explicitly say that he was opposed to the 2 percent idea.

Another possible angle is that since the Obama action plan didn’t really include all that much that was new or different from what they’d been saying over the summer, it didn’t warrant close scrutiny. But in that case, why cover it so much?

It’s not the biggest scandal there ever was, or even that big a deal, but when there’s so much coverage being produced — so much hoopla being transmitted — it’d be nice to feel confident that readers were getting the full story. And to me the opposition of two of the big education associations who are involved in the testing debate is a big part of that story.

UPDATE: This US News story (Obama Administration’s School Testing Proposal Comes Under Fire) comes closest to how I would have imagined the story being written. Here’s how it opens: “Organizations representing the country’s state school chiefs and biggest urban school districts agree that students are spending too much time taking tests. But they have a beef with a proposal the Obama administration unveiled over the weekend for how to fix that.”

Alexander Russo

Alexander Russo is a freelance education writer who has created several long-running blogs such as the national news site This Week In Education, District 299 (about Chicago schools), and LA School Report. He can be reached on Twitter at @alexanderrusso, on Facebook, or directly at alexanderrusso@gmail.com.