USED Remains Hopelessly Committed to Standardized Testing

Leaping from triumph to triumph, the U.S. Department of Education (USED) has announced a new assessments grant program to follow its failed assessments grant program from six years ago.  Ed Week reports that USED will allow states to compete to get back a small chunk of money that was theirs in the first place (a total of $8.6 million), which cash can be used to “bolster their assessment systems.” Reminiscent of the infamous Race to the Top scheme, these competitive grants will be called Enhanced Assessment Grants.

Last fall the Obama Administration tried to tamp down the boiling furor over excessive testing – especially with the two Common Core-aligned standardized-testing consortia, Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and SMARTER BALANCED Assessment Consortium (SBAC) – by announcing a “testing action plan” to trim testing time while still hanging on to federal control. Education Secretary John King told Ed Week that this new competition has “similarities” to the assessment flexibility granted a few pilot states by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) but differs primarily, it seems, in timing. As with so much that comes out of USED, the details are hazy. And because the Obama administration is known to, shall we say, take liberties with statutory law, what difference, at this point, does it make?

President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom in Georgia (photo credit: The White House via Flickr)
President Barack Obama visits a pre-kindergarten classroom in Georgia (photo credit: The White House via Flickr)

This new addition to the federal Common Core standards-and-assessments structure offers an elegant encapsulation of the bureaucratic mindset in policy-making. USED spent over $360 million of taxpayers’ money (illegally) in 2010 to fund grants to develop standardized tests to align with the then-new Common Core national standards. The grant winners were PARCC and SBAC, both of which have, since then, cratered.

From a peak of 45 states that once planned to administer either the PARCC or the SBAC assessment, only 21 states remain committed to do so. Myriad problems contributing to this federally funded implosion include excessive cost, lack of test validity, and Keystone Kops technical administration. In other words, these assessments have all the earmarks of a government operation.

A normal person, i.e., a non-bureaucrat, would look at this smoking landscape and decide not to try this again. But USED views the same scene and concludes, naturally, that we should pour more federal funds into test-development. After all, USED reasons, it’s not our money, so what difference . . . . And just as with every disastrous government program over the last 50 years, the immediate bureaucratic response is that the government really can be terrific at this if the effort is just properly funded.

The comment of “senior White House aide on education issues” Roberto Rodriguez is classic. Asked by Ed Week whether the PARCC and SBAC experience gives one pause, Mr. Rodriguez demonstrated spinning skills that should guarantee him a bright future in politics. The PARCC and SBAC “investment,” he suggested, has been a roaring success: “We’re seeing really great progress.”

Only in the federal government can a loss of 67% of one’s business be described as “really great progress.”

The types of “innovative” tests funded by this new round of competitive grants are likely to be the 21st-century assessments so beloved of federal educrats but so impractical and useless in the real world (“performance” tasks, portfolios, etc.).  But that’s a topic for another time. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. For now, just know that it’s business as usual in Washington, D.C. – money is wasted, power flexed, and the federal pusher smiles as more addict states line up for their next fix.

So from the pusher’s perspective, maybe the money isn’t wasted after all.

Emmett McGroarty and Jane Robbins are senior fellows at American Principles Project.