Standards and Testing in the Obama Administration

The following is an excerpt from What Lies Ahead for America’s Children and Their Schools, a new book edited by Chester E. Finn, Jr. and Richard Sousa for Hoover Institution Press. This excerpt comes from a chapter called “Implementing Standards and Testing” by Williamson M. Evers.

Barack Obama did not promise national standards when he campaigned for president. But when results of the 2009 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) test were released, they showed that the United States was mediocre in mathematics, while students in Shanghai performed dramatically better. Both President Obama and education policy analyst Chester Finn said that these results were as important and stunning as the launching of Sputnik. [1]

The Obama administration had begun to espouse the national standards initiative, in long-time education journalist Robert Rothman’s words, “soon after taking office.” Education Secretary Arne Duncan and his senior counselor Marshall Smith had been advocates of national standards before they were appointed by President Obama. [2]

The Obama administration soon developed an ambitious program of federally guided K–12 education reform consisting of national curriculum-content standards and national tests based on these curriculum standards.

Thwarting an Inexorable Race to the Bottom?

Central to the Obama administration’s thinking (and rhetoric) on education reform was the idea that state performance standards were already on a downward slide and that, without federal intervention, they would inexorably continue on a “race to the bottom.” [3] The name given to the administration’s signature school reform effort, the Race to the Top program (RttT), reflects this belief. The idea is that to prevent states from following their supposed natural dynamic of a race to the bottom, [4] the federal government needs to step in and lead a race to the top.

Critics disagree, [5] arguing that state education policymakers need to take into account not only the challenge teachers and school administrators face from rigorous content and performance standards, but also the damage that low standards would bring to the state’s reputation for having a trained workforce and the damage to the policymakers’ own reputations.

In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looked empirically at state performance standards over time in a study called The Proficiency Illusion. The study showed that while states had a variety of performance standards (as would be expected in a federal system), the race to the bottom was not happening. [6]

Race to the Top

To finance Race to the Top, the US Department of Education took discretionary stimulus money that could be used as conditional grants, and then turned a portion of that money into a competitive grant program. It used the grants to encourage states to adopt the national standards. Policy analyst Michael Petrilli aptly called inducements to adopt the standards “the carrot that feels like a stick.” [7] The department also paid for national consortia to develop national tests aligned with the national curriculum–content standards.

NCLB Waivers

The administration created another inducement in the form of No Child Left Behind waivers. In return for adopting the national standards or a federally approved alternative, states could escape NCLB sanctions for not making timely gains in student achievement. [8] Critics said that Secretary Duncan was going beyond what the law allows by substituting the Obama administration’s favored education reforms (including national curriculum-content standards and tests) for NCLB’s accountability measures. Critics also pointed out that the new accountability systems under the waivers may hide deficiencies in the performance of children in previously closely watched sub-groups and may weaken incentives to improve performance of those children. [9]

In addition, some of the substantive policy changes the Obama administration wants to put in place—through RttT and the conditional waivers—are in the area of a national curriculum. [10] Yet three federal statutes prohibit the Education Department from making policy on curriculum. [11]

Quality of the Common Core National Standards

The new national academic-content standards for English and math are no better than the standards in place in one quarter of the states and weaker than those in a half-dozen states. [12] Though they are certainly a step up for many states, there was no effort to accommodate states that prior to 2010 had standards that were better than Common Core. [13]

Adoption of the Common Core

The Obama administration used the fine print in its Race to the Top scoring rubric to ensure that there would be only one set of national standards. States would be in a better competitive position if they adopted a “common set of K–12 standards” that had been adopted by “a majority of the states.” [14] By definition, if a majority of states is needed, there can be only one set that is adopted. Any set adopted by a minority would put a state that adopted it at a distinct disadvantage. Hence, there came to be only one set of national standards.
After the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI) issued its standards in June 2010, the Department of Education insisted that states that wanted to compete effectively for Race to the Top grants had to adopt national standards by August. The standards were written in a hurry to meet federal deadlines and were never piloted in a state or locality. Kentucky (where Gene Wilhoit, at the time the executive director of the Common Core–sponsoring Council of Chief State School Officers, had recently been state commissioner of education) adopted the new national standards sight unseen in February 2010, months ahead of their publication. [15]

Thus, during 2010 and 2011, forty-five states plus the District of Columbia adopted the Common Core national curriculum–content standards. [16] The federal government is paying for the creation of national assessments and encouraging states to use them to fulfill NCLB requirements for testing and accountability. The federal government also set criteria for the design of the assessments and has established a federal technical review board to oversee the design. [17]

National Tests

In September 2010, the Department of Education awarded $330 million for the creation of national tests. Both the testing consortia that received federal grants included commitments in their proposals that they would develop national curriculum materials. Key writers of the national standards were subsequently retained to develop the national tests. [18]

Progressive educators, particularly advocates of “authentic assessment” and “performance-based assessment,” had been hoping to use national tests to influence the curriculum. [19] They envisioned project-based tests that use “open-ended performances in which students develop solutions, write explanations, or evaluate potential strategies.” [20]

At least a portion of the test problems will be project-based, designed to evaluate such skills as “complex problem-solving” and communication. [21] Such testing is intended to encourage the use of discovery-learning techniques in the classroom.

Stanford Education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond, a long-time proponent of progressive teaching methods, was a prominent spokeswoman for the Obama campaign in 2008. She is widely credited with being the intellectual leader of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which was awarded one of the two contracts to create national tests.

Darling-Hammond praises “good language” in the Common Core national curriculum-content standards about critical thinking skills and problem-solving. In a 2011 interview by Lynnette Guastaferro of Teaching Matters, Darling-Hammond says that whether the national standards are put into effect in a way that is “much more focused on higher-order learning skills” (that is, progressive education classrooms for all) depends on “building curriculum materials,” “transforming” testing, and changing in-service teacher training.

Darling-Hammond says it is “especially important,” if you want to remake American public education, to “rethink” testing. Other countries, she says, do not make extensive use of multiple-choice questions. Instead, they test primarily in “open-ended formats” with “performances” and “projects” as part of the examination system. Her assessment consortium will “move the needle” in the direction of what she considers “more thoughtful” tests. [22]

Common Core–aligned textbooks and teacher professional development do, as of this writing, seem to be fulfilling Darling-Hammond’s vision of a nationwide turn toward inquiry-based learning.

Critics of the national tests maintain that what is tested is what is taught and that the combination of national tests, national standards, RttT grants, and NCLB waivers puts America on the road to a national curriculum. Most national standards and testing proponents counter that states and districts may still select their own teaching materials and devise their own lesson plans.

Williamson M. Evers is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Institution’s Koret Task Force on K–12 Education

Reprinted from What Lies Ahead for America’s Children and Their Schools, edited by Chester E. Finn Jr. and Richard Sousa, with the permission of the publisher, Hoover Institution Press. Copyright © 2014 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University.

1. National Governors Association, Council of Chief State School Officers, and Achieve Inc., “Benchmarking for Success: Ensuring US Students Receive a World-Class Education,” December 2008, 8.
2. Melinda Malico, “Marshall (Mike) S. Smith Retires (Again) from ED,” Homeroom (blog), US Department of Education, May 26, 2010,
3. Brown and Rocha, “The Case for National Standards,” 1; and Vinovskis, From A Nation at Risk, 219.
4. For critics of the supposed natural dynamic of a “race to the bottom” in policy fields other than education, see Jonathan H. Adler, “Interstate Competition and the Race to the Top,” Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy 35, no. 1 (March 2, 2012), 89, 96–97; Scott R. Saleska and Kirsten H. Engel, “‘Facts Are Stubborn Things’: An Empirical Reality Check in the Theoretical Debate Over the Race-to-the-Bottom in State Environmental Standard-Setting,” Cornell Journal of Law and Public Policy 8 (1998), 55–86; and John Ferejohn and Barry R. Weingast, eds., The New Federalism: Can The States Be Trusted? (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1997).
5. Adler, “Interstate Competition”; Saleska and Engel, “‘Facts Are Stubborn Things’”; and Ferejohn and Weingast, The New Federalism.
6. See Chester E. Finn Jr. and Michael J. Petrilli, foreword to John Cronin, Michael Dahlin, Deborah Adkins, and G. Gage Kingsbury, “The Proficiency Illusion,” Thomas B. Fordham Institute, October 2007, 4,
/publications/theproficiencyillusion.html. This study and a 2009 Fordham study, “The Accountability Illusion,” stressed that this variety of performance standards (that would be expected in a federal system) meant that a school that was deemed to be doing well in Mississippi would probably not be deemed to be doing well in Massachusetts. In 1997, the Clinton administration made equivalent claims of a race to the bottom in its time. See John F. Jennings, Why National Standards and Tests? Politics and the Quest for Better Schools (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications, 1998), 177–78.
7. Michael J. Petrilli, “The Race to the Top: The Carrot That Feels Like a Stick,” Flypaper (blog), Thomas B. Fordham Institute, July 23, 2009, Petrilli was primarily referring to the detailed requirements.
8. On issuing of waivers as a serious problem for the rule of law, see Richard A. Epstein, “Government by Waiver,” National Affairs (Spring 2011), 39. Epstein is writing about the effect of waivers by all levels of government on private firms and individuals, but much of what he says applies also to federal waivers granted to states, local governments, and school districts.
9. Michele McNeil, “Ed. Trust Slams NCLB Waivers for Neglecting At-Risk Students,” Politics K–12 (blog), Education Week, February 7, 2013,–12/2013/02/ed_trust_slams_nclb_waivers_fo.html.
10. The Obama administration said in its blueprint for reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that it wanted adoption of common college- and career–readiness standards or a federally approved alternative to be a required condition for states to receive federal aid to education under Title I of ESEA. See “A Blueprint for Reform: The Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act” (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, March 2010), 3,
11. Robert S. Eitel, Kent D. Talbert, and Williamson M. Evers, “The Road to a National Curriculum: The Legal Aspects of the Common Core Standards, Race to the Top, and Conditional Waivers,” Pioneer Institute, February 2012.
12. Sheila Byrd Carmichael, W. Stephen Wilson, Kathleen Porter-Magee, and Gabrielle Martino, “The State of State Standards—and the Common Core—in 2010.” The study was published in July 2010 by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and supported in part by the Gates Foundation,
13. Liam Julian wrote in 2009, “Several states have actually managed to craft admirable standards, among them California, Indiana, and Massachusetts; and several others are revising standards that badly need it. Will these states be compelled to jettison the results of their fine work and remake their curricula and assessments to jibe with ‘voluntary’ national standards?” See Liam Julian, “Against National Standards,” Weekly Standard 14, no. 44 (August 10, 2009),
14. Federal Register, “Overview Information; Race to the Top Fund; Notice Inviting Applications for New Awards for Fiscal Year (FY) 2010.” See Appendix B, Reviewer Guidance Specific to (B)(2)(ii)—Significant Number of States, I am indebted to Ze’ev Wurman for this point.
15. Rothman, Something in Common, 71–72, 101–102.
16. Catherine Gewertz, “Common-Standards Watch: Montana Makes 47,” Curriculum Matters (blog), Education Week, November 4, 2011,
17. Catherine Gewertz, “Common-Assessment Groups to Undergo New Federal Review Process,” Curriculum Matters (blog), Education Week, April, 1, 2013, Catherine /edweek/curriculum/2013/04/common_assessment_groups_to_undergo_new_federal_review_process.html.
18. Rothman, Something in Common, 28.
19. This is similar to efforts during the Clinton administration to use NSF-funded teaching materials as a basis for a progressive education curriculum. See McKeown et al., “Systemic Initiatives,” 332–33, 357–59.
20. Lauren B. Resnick, Mary Kay Stein, and Sarah Coon, “Standards-Based Reform: A Powerful Idea Unmoored,” in Improving on No Child Left Behind: Getting Education Reform Back on Track, ed. Richard D. Kahlenberg (New York: The Century Foundation, 2008), 103, 131–32.
21. McKeown et al., “Systemic Initiatives,” 29. On Gates Foundation support for project-based testing tied to the Common Core national-curriculum standards, see Vicki Phillips and Carina Wong, “Tying Together the Common Core of Standards, Instruction, and Assessments,” Phi Delta Kappan 91, no. 5 (February 2010), 40–42. I am indebted to Ze’ev Wurman for this reference.
22. Lynnette Guastaferro, “A Conversation with Linda Darling-Hammond,” Teaching Matters (blog), October 19, 2011, On Linda Darling-Hammond’s research on the effect of teaching credentials, see Kate Walsh, “Teacher Certification Reconsidered: Stumbling for Quality” (Baltimore: The Abell Foundation, 2001).

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