Obama Criticizes His Own Pro-Testing Agenda At Town Hall

Under the president's education policy proposals, an entire school's teaching staff can be fired and schools can be shut down if test scores don't improve.

By Julianne Hing Mar 29, 2011

On Monday President Obama criticized portions of his own policy platform when he told the crowd at Bell Multicultural High School in Washington, D.C., "Too often what we have been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools," the AP reported.

The event was a town hall focusing on Latino education specially televised by Univision. From the AP:

"One thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching the test because then you’re not learning about the world, you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math," the president said. "All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test and that’s not going to make education interesting."

"And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in," Obama said. "They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring."

It’s a laudable if uncontroversial statement, notable because central portions of Obama’s education reform plan demand that standardized tests be used to measure student learning and track their progress, and keep tabs on teacher performance. For years education advocates have criticized the ways that standardized test score have led to the shrinking of education curriculum as schools face increasing pressure to raise test scores in reading and math. Under Race to the Top, the $4.3 billion competitive grants program that the Obama administration initiated in 2009, states have been rewarded with money for adopting laws that call for standardized test scores to be taken into consideration in teachers’ evaluations. Increasingly, teachers’ job security depends on their students’ test scores. Under Obama’s education policy proposals, an entire school’s teaching staff can be fired, schools can be shut down, and new charter schools brought in, if test scores don’t improve adequately. A number of recent scandals involving potential test tampering and impropriety suggest that the charter schools and traditional public schools alike are feeling immense pressure to show yearly gains in test scores.

Obama’s great at co-opting his critics’ arguments even if he doesn’t take to heart their policy suggestions. It’s an excellent strategy for cornering his critics and closing off the political space that critics of standardized tests have carved out for themselves in the often confounding education debate.

During the event Obama also said he was opposed to the idea of granting administrative relief to undocumented immigrant youth facing deportation. He also turned down the idea of offering young people who would have been eligible for the DREAM Act temporary protected status.

"With respect to the notion that I can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case," Obama told Karen Maldonado, an undocumented immigrant youth who held up her deportation order and asked him why students were still receiving them.

"There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with my appropriate role as president."

Obama supports the DREAM Act, however, which would have allowed students like Maldonado who clear a host of hurdles to become eligible for citizenship after a thirteen-year wait.