While Republicans Demagogue on Education, Senator Tester and Superintendent Juneau Lead

I’ve been remiss not to write about some Common Core and testing issues across the state, ironically enough because I’ve been too busy preparing my students for the ACT and AP exams to do much writing at all. With the weekend’s essays graded, though, it seems a good time to write about the past week in testing news.

Nationally, Senator Tester is working to reform some of the testing mania that’s coming out of Washington. As Congress continues its ineffective efforts to reform the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, Senator Tester is pushing an amendment that would not only reduce the testing required, but give districts more flexibility about those measurements. From the Great Falls Tribune:

Instead, Tester’s amendment will call for federal testing to be done once in elementary school, then middle school and high school. He said it will be up to states and local school boards to determine the annual tests and measurements they want to implement. He said eliminating some of the federal oversight when it comes to standards will give teachers more freedom to work with their students.

It’s the right move. As Tester notes, the testing regime is expensive, hurts creativity in classrooms, and wastes time on testing that may not prove a great deal about a student’s proficiency. And it certainly doesn’t make sense, as the law requires now, to mandate that students take these time consuming tests every year from third-eighth grade.

Some of the problems with this standardized testing have been seen in Montana, where the annual assessments have been delayed by technical glitches from our provider for the past two years. And Superintendent Juneau took the bold and correct response to lift the requirement for Montana schools, using the rationale that the tests are not more important than the educational mission of schools. Until the providers of the new testing can sort out their inability to deliver a reliable product, students simply should not be subjected to the tests, and I commend Ms. Juneau for putting students first.

More important, perhaps, is another initiative Juneau rolled out in 2013, free statewide ACT testing for all juniors. Giving all students access to the ACT increases the likelihood that some students will consider college and provides a useful snapshot about college readiness for all Montana students. It’s too simplistic to argue that all standardized testing is bad, when a reliable measure like the ACT, one that students know matters for their futures, are available. The Office of Public Instruction and the Office of the Commissioner of Higher Education made an excellent decision to pursue this grant, and I hope that the testing continues beyond this first five-year window.

While leaders like Tester and Juneau are tackling the issues of testing, the Republican Party is offering nonsense. For some reason, even though he clearly had no idea what he was talking about, the Great Falls Tribune let the GOP’s Communication Director offer this non sequitur about the Tester proposal, noting he:

…would not say whether party leaders are happy with Tester’s proposal, which would limit the testing some members of the Republican party have been rallying against.

“This is quite the turnaround for Senator Tester because just a few weeks ago he rejected allowing Montana to opt-out of Common Core,” Scanlon said. “When Senator Tester voted to support Common Core he made it clear that he believes in President Obama’s government-mandated education curriculum and that Washington, D.C., bureaucrats know what’s best for our students — not Montana families.”

The Common Core is a set of standards, not a curriculum, not developed by the federal government, but the states, and not one that requires annual testing. In fact, the annual testing requirement is a legacy of George Bush’s failed No Child Left Behind policy, another Republican education innovation. In a year when Republicans in the Montana Legislature tried to abandon the Common Core Standards, allow religious instruction with public dollars, defund public schools, and mandate teaching that dinosaurs were in the Garden of Eden in Science classes, it’s little wonder that Mr. Scanlon is so wrong.

It probably also explains why candidate Ryan Zinke did not oppose the Common Core Standards in October of 2014, but now claims to in a grammatically-challenged sentence on his Congressional page.

It’s because when it comes to education, Montana Republicans have two impulses: two dissemble and to defund.

When it comes to the future of Montana’s students, who should we trust? Leaders who take a stand for students or those who only see them as political props and subjects for inane, often dishonest talking points?

There’s only one real answer on this test.


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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba has been writing about Montana politics since 2005 and teaching high school English since 2000. He's a former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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