Reading Between The Lines: Obama’s “Testing Action Plan”




Is Obama’s Testing Action Plan, like Fruit Loops, part of a nutritious breakfast? Don’t believe the hype.

This has been over a decade in the making. In 2000 Business Week  listed the companies benefiting from the new boon in online education stating, “Dozens of new companies are springing up to serve the emerging K-12 market for digital learning. Investors have poured nearly $1 billion into these companies since the beginning of 1999, estimates Merrill Lynch.”

Obama’s “Testing Action Plan” declares a reduction in standardized testing! Is less testing a good thing? Yes, of course it is! But what are we getting in its stead? The privatizers are hoping we aren’t asking that, or hoping we won’t look. But we are looking and we are asking. These are the same folks who are driving the policies to privatize public education. What do they gain for reducing testing? Our trust? It makes them look good. And they hope it gets “us” off “their backs.”  But what are we getting in exchange for this?

Remember…the same folks crafting test and punish want to privatize public education. That is their goal.  We are getting rid of over-testing – yes….that is good. BUT … In lieu of that we are now going to have states outsource the “innovative” outcomes-based assessments to the edu-tech industry. Their mission accomplished. Federally mandated testing was getting too much heat. So they’ve built a better mouse trap. One they hope we will not recognize.

If the reduction or elimination of federal standardized testing were the GOAL of United Opt Out National we would find greater cause to feel hopeful. But we believe that HST was/is merely an instrument toward privatization (profit) and therefore testing refusal is a strategy to dismantle corporate reform. But corporate reformers have not  put down their weapons. They have changed weapons…and strategy. Our goal is not ending testing. Our goal is protecting children, public schools and democratic educational practices. And so our fight wages on with a new face.

This is what the “Testing Action Plan” (TAP) says:

The new plan will “include competency-based assessments, innovative item types.” It states also “The Department will also share tools already available to do this work, including The Council of Chief State School Officers’ (CCSSO) Comprehensive Statewide Assessment Systems: A Framework for the Role of the State Education Agency in Improving Quality and Reducing Burden and Achieve’s Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts.”

This is what it means:

Remember CCSSO? They are the ones who crafted the Common Core State Standards. The standards were developed to create a “standardized” system that allows third-party companies to develop systems for outsourcing education. Now with a set of “national” standards as benchmarks, instruction can be metered out by online edu-tech companies who provide new “competency” based instruction and assessment. No teacher required.

In 2010, the Foundation for Excellence in Education (who supported Common Core) convened the Digital Learning Council, a diverse group of more than 100 leaders in education, government, philanthropy, business, technology and members of policy think tanks led by Co-Chairmen Jeb Bush, and Bob Wise (both integral in the creation and promotion of Common Core).  It’s an ALEC model-endorsed comprehensive framework of state-level policies and actions  “designed to advance the meaningful and thoughtful integration of technology into K12 public education.”

This idea is stated again toward the end of the Testing Action Plan (TAP): “Congress should continue to require the Department to work with external assessment experts to ensure states are using high-quality assessments that are aligned with state-developed standards and valid for the purposes for which they are used.”

TAP Says:

“…the Department granted a temporary waiver to New Hampshire to pilot a competency-based assessment system in four districts ….” as a way to set a national example, (and),  “The Department will work with external assessment experts…”

What this means:

The department will outsource education curriculum and assessment to corporations just like it did in NH where they “…have adopted unique and innovative learning approaches, such as digital learning, that create a more flexible learning schedule that extends beyond the school day.”

EXTERNAL assessment experts. Why? State depts of education already hire folks with years of experience and/or PhDs in curriculum and evaluation. WHY do we need “external” experts? Who are they? And who defines their “expertise”?

The Alliance for Excellent Education  (Bob Wise serves as president) in 2013 stated: “Competency-based advancement is an important part of New Hampshire’s strategy for implementing the Common Core State Standards.”

TAP Says:

“The Department will be part of the community of researchers, technologists, and innovators within the assessment community who are piloting new models, by providing federal funding and incentives for these next-generation assessments and by, where feasible, removing policy barriers to advance this goal.”

What this means:

Researchers: Think-tanks funded by the corporations who profit from their “recommendations” like Alliance for Excellent Education who promoted the NH policies touted in the TAP. Also, Knowledge Works , who wrote a policy brief back in 2013 promoting “competency-based” policies for the role of the U.S. Dept of Education.

Technologists: Online education companies, as mentioned above, such as KnowledgeWorks (the ones writing the policy recommendation) who state, “Since our founding in 2000, KnowledgeWorks has evolved first from an involved philanthropy focused exclusively in Ohio to become an operating foundation and finally a social enterprise engaged in work across the United States.”

Or, CCSSO Innovation Labs: “The goal of the ILN is to spur system-level change by scaling locally-led innovation to widespread implementation” Innovators: For-profit enterprises who receive your tax payers dollars to have your child’s educational services outsourced to them. And here’s that ”next generation” language again (stated in TAP) mirrored from Alliance for Excellent Education  (2013): “… the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium are working to develop next generation assessments, as well as real-time digital assessment systems, all of which are aligned with the new the Common Core State Standards.

Removal of Barriers: Thanks ALEC.

TAP Says:

Invest in innovative assessments: Congress should provide dedicated competitive funding for states with new ideas to develop innovative ways to measure student learning.”

What This Means:

Monies will be directed toward private companies who will be hired by states to implement online education and assessment services.

Here it is stated again: “developing innovative new assessment instruments, such as performance and technology-based academic assessments.”

Here’s how your child’s learning will be assessed  in this next generation:

“Further instructional technology advances will ensure ever more sophisticated learning platforms and data systems that not only more efficiently identify student needs, but also more effectively identify and deliver matching interventions from a repository of adaptive software, engaging digital content and instructor-delivered resources (online and face-to-face) not otherwise available through traditional means. The maturity of data interoperability and content portability standards will enable educators, students, and software applications to assemble ever more unique, best of breed resources customized to each student.”

TAP Says:

“This review process must respond to changes in the field, such as accounting for the increased prevalence of the use of technology-based assessments as well as techniques for demonstrating their technical quality … This could include competency-based assessments, innovative item types (and) … using technology to administer and score assessments …”

What This Means: Computers will determine what children should learn, how they learn, why they should learn, and who they are as learners.

Scratch away all of the other words used for window dressing. Distill the document down to its essence (i.e how many times is something repeated or rephrased). Hold it up against Alexander’s ESEA language and you get a clear picture: WE WILL GET RID OF  UNNECESSARY FEDERAL TESTING (not to actually re empower teachers and recreate meaningful learning) BUT TO MAKE WAY FOR THE INFUSION OF ONLINE AND TECHNOLOGY BASED LEARNING OUTSOURCED  BY STATES TO PROFIT-DRIVEN COMPANIES. WE CALL IT OUTCOMES –BASED. WE CALL IT INNOVATION. OUTSOURCING WILL BE CALLED “EXTERNAL EXPERTS.”

What they call it behind closed doors is PROFITS AND PRIVATIZATION. Alexander’s ESEA revisions are leading the way.

Sure, it’s hard to imagine that schools, especially in well-off suburban neighborhoods would permit their teachers to be replaced with technology. Or their children’s education to be outsourced to online companies. But more and more technology is infused with classroom learning and its becoming “normalized” gradually. Some states require kids to take at least one on-line course in high school. But the best weapon privatizers have at their disposal is our disbelief that “it could happen.” The words “that’ll never happen” are the hallmark of nearly every horrifying affront to democracy and human rights we’ve seen happen in modern history.  I go with what history has to show. “Only history itself can convince you of such a truth. And once you’ve seen that truth-really seen it-you cannot look way” (Kostova, 2005).

Who is bending the ear and wallet of YOUR STATE-LEVEL POLICY MAKERS to determine WHAT performance-based assessments will look like? You? Or, the corporations who are in bed with ALEC (which meets with state legislators behind closed door to craft model legislation)? How often do WE get to meet behind closed doors with legislators? Who do you think they will LISTEN to?

ALEC Model Legislation Reflected Between the Lines

Adopting the 10 Elements of High Quality Digital Learning:

Statewide Online Education Act:

“Course Choice Program Act”:


Published by educationalchemy

Morna McDermott has been an educator for over twenty years in both k-12 and post secondary classrooms. She received her doctorate in education, with a dissertation focus on arts-based educational research, from The University of Virginia in 2001. Morna's teaching, scholarship, and activism center around the ways in which creativity, art, social justice, and democracy can transform education and empower communities. She is currently a Professor of Education at Towson University.

16 thoughts on “Reading Between The Lines: Obama’s “Testing Action Plan”

  1. I was listenig until the point that you said “we believe”. Meaning you have no proof and this is a conspiracy theory which I am not interested in.

    1. You can parse one word in a five page single spaced word doc if you like and “tap out” because you don’t like my choice of words or you can see I use primary documents and people’s own words to support as evidence -a “conspiracy” relies on conjecture -I prefer evidence and claim nothing I cannot prove – aliens are a conspiracy theory -privatization of education is a well founded phenomena supported by far many more people than just myself

  2. There is no conspiracy theory here. It is all as described in Corporate Colonization. Would that it were not so. From middle of the road

    ALEK instructor,Whelan, does not lecture. What would be the point, when no two students are studying the same thing? Instead, she serves as a sort of roving tutor, moving from one student to the next as they call on her for help. A teaching assistant is also on call to help those who get stuck or to verify that they’re ready to take their next test. As the students work, the software logs everything from which questions they get right and wrong to the amount of time they spend on each one. When Whelan’s online dashboard tells her that several are struggling with the same Math concept, she’ll assemble those students and work through some problems as a small group.
    It’s teaching as triage.

    The result is a classroom experience starkly different from the model that has dominated American education for the past 100 years.

    Almost everyone who thinks seriously about education agrees that the antiquated “sage on a stage”—is flawed. They just can’t agree on what should replace it. Flipped classrooms? Massive open online courses? Hands-on, project-based learning?

    While the thinkers are arguing, textbook publishers are acting. With their traditional business models under pressure, they’ve begun to reinvent themselves as educational technology companies.
    They’re selling schools and colleges on a new generation of digital courseware—ALEKS is just one example—that takes on much of the work that teachers used to do. The software isn’t meant to replace teachers, they insist.
    Rather, it’s meant to free them to focus on high-level, conceptual instruction.

    Whelan’s pre-algebra classroom is a glimpse into the near future—not only for community college math classes, but potentially for wide swaths of K-12 and higher education in subjects ranging from chemistry to Spanish to social studies. Software like ALEKS, according to its proponents, represents the early stages of a technological and pedagogical breakthrough decades in the making. It has the potential to transform education as we know it, and soon. Before that happens, though, it’s worth at least asking the question: Is that something we want?…

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