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The Daily Tar Heel

Q&A with policy analyst Matt Ellinwood on Obama's suggested testing requirements

President Barack Obama released a statement Saturday siding with parents concerned about their children being over-tested — and outlining guidelines for the U.S. Department of Education to help school districts nationwide overhaul what students are tested on and how often they're tested. 

But his remarks do not officially reverse the No Child Left Behind policies initiated in 2001, meant to keep disadvantaged students from falling through the cracks with standardized testing. Staff Writer Audrey Wells spoke with Matt Ellinwood, a policy analyst with N.C. Policy Watch, about what these guidelines mean for education in America.

The Daily Tar Heel: Do you think Obama's announcement was ideologically or politically motivated?

Matt Ellinwood: ...There was a law passed in 2014 appointing a commission to revise (Common standards). I think that legislators here are getting a lot of calls from parents who aren’t happy about the level of testing, and that’s something that’s been happening nationwide. It seems like finally the federal government is finally coming into line with where everyone else has been for some time now in these concerns over testing. I don’t know if it’s political necessarily or if it’s just responding to the overwhelming outcry that’s come from constituents across the country.

DTH: What does this statement mean for education in North Carolina as well as the country as a whole?

ME: One of the things (Obama) said something about was that students shouldn’t spend more than two percent of their time taking tests, which comes out to about 20-24 hours over the course of the school year. In most grades in North Carolina we are under that anyway, so I think it’s mainly symbolic in its importance and recognition that we need to do something about this. I think the plan is very vague at this point, it doesn’t say anything about the amount of time you should spend studying or teaching for these tests or doing these drill-type exercises. People are worried about stifling critical thinking skills of students, so it doesn’t address a lot of the bigger concerns that are still out there, and it doesn’t address the quality of the tests that students are taking. I have a concern that a lot of the tests we take are standardized tests that involve a lot of rote memorization and they don’t test deeper critical thinking skills…

If there is that two percent limit, that may have implications for third grade in terms of how much they can test the students (as part of the Read to Achieve program) who might be in risk of retention. The consequence of that could be that if they don’t have the opportunity to test multiple times, they may be more likely to be retained. We did see a larger number of students retained last year than in previous years.

DTH: Do you think the Obama administration would change No Child Left Behind legislation?

ME: What I hope will come out of it is that we’re going to make these tests more meaningful. Maybe we can look at models in other countries where they don’t take tests quite so frequently, but the ones they do take are more in-depth and give us better information about how students are doing. …It’s possible that we’ll see less testing in every single grade, or less benchmark testing because we might have gateway tests that test student’s knowledge at different points in their careers like a lot of other countries use. I don’t think that testing is going to go away, because it is important to make sure that our reforms are having a positive impact on students and right now, for better or worse, the only test that we have for measuring student progress.

DTH: How do you think the statement will affect the UNC system with the election of Margaret Spellings as the president-elect?

ME: She’s been a supporter of No Child Left Behind and she also believes in applying sort of the same principle for higher education in some ways, but I think we have around 80 percent of students who graduate from high school in the state but only around a quarter of students are graduating from higher ed. She seems to be a proponent of having some measurement of student progress in higher ed as well and trying to figure out where people are going off-track and what’re some things we can do to increase that number.

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