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Education Department Helps States Cut Standardized Testing

The Education Department released guidance Tuesday outlining how states and districts can use federal money to reduce testing in public schools.
A student raises her hand to ask a question during a class.
A student raises her hand to ask a question during a class.DON EMMERT / AFP - Getty Images file

The Obama administration is offering states and local school districts a lesson plan of sorts to cut the amount of time that students spend on those fill-in-the-bubble and other standardized tests.

The Education Department released guidance Tuesday to states and local school districts outlining different ways they can use existing federal money to reduce testing in the nation's public schools. It follows a call by President Barack Obama last October to cap standardized testing and complaints by teachers, parents and others that that too many hours are spent "teaching to the test."

In a letter to state school officials, the department details how certain federal money can be used to cut tests. States and districts, for example, could use federal education dollars intended for the development of state assessments to instead conduct audits of their tests to see if they have redundant assessments or low-quality ones that could be eliminated.

Related: Obama Signs Education Law Rewrite; Power Shift to States

States also could use federal dollars to develop strategies to improve the quality of current tests or decrease the time students spend taking them, the letter said.

"High-quality assessments give parents, educators and students useful information about whether students are developing the critical thinking and problem solving skills they need," Acting Education Secretary John King Jr. said. "But there has to be a balance, and despite good intentions, there are too many places around the country where the balance still isn't quite right."

The goal isn't to do away with standardized tests. Obama, in October, said smart, strategic tests are needed to measure students' learning and performance in school. But, he said, "we're going to work with states, school districts, teachers and parents to make sure that we're not obsessing about testing."

The new guidance from the department was released via social media, on YouTube.

Students spend about 20 to 25 hours a school year taking standardized tests, according to a study last year of the nation's 66 largest school districts by the Council of the Great City Schools.

In all, between pre-K and 12th grade, students take about 112 standardized exams. The council said the testing amounts to 2.3 percent of classroom time for the average 8th grader. Obama has encouraged states to cap testing at 2 percent of classroom time.

The 2002 No Child Left Behind education law ushered in a new era of testing in public schools. It required annual testing in reading and math in grades three to eight, and once in high school.

Related: Obama Calls to Curb Standardized Testing in Schools

Those tests would still be required under a new education law signed by Obama late last year, but states now have more flexibility on how best to assess teachers, schools and students — with measures that consider other factors beyond the test scores.

The Education Department highlighted two areas where standardized testing has been eased in schools.

In Tulsa, Oklahoma, the district has dramatically cut the overall time spent on district-mandated testing by reducing the frequency of some tests, eliminating one test entirely, and removing district requirements to implement others. Third-graders, for example, had been spending about 1,240 minutes on district-required tests and now will spend 660 minutes on such tests, the department said. Tennessee also is in the process of streamlining some of its state-mandated tests.