Arne Duncan Dodges Standardized Test Question

Secretary Arne Duncan went on CNN this morning to promote the Department of Education's newly expanded Teacher Incentive Fund, which will award $437 million in grants to educators who markedly improve student performance. The measuring stick? According to an official DOE press release, the proposed incentive plans must "use fair and transparent evaluations based on multiple measures including student growth."

Translation: standardized test scores.

Throughout his CNN interview, Duncan was asked repeatedly whether the grants would encourage teachers to "teach to the test," or sacrifice worthwhile educational goals in order to focus on test-taking strategy and more testable material. But Duncan dismissed the concern, reasoning that such practices aren't effective and, therefore, won't be rewarded. "It doesn't work," he said more than once, adding that grant money will end up going to dynamic, high-quality educators who truly succeed in helping their students learn.

That may well be true, but that wasn't really the question, was it? Duncan wasn't being asked whether teaching to the test is an effective educational technique; he was being asked, essentially, whether some teachers would think it was. If the "student growth" that will attract federal grants—and rewards teachers—is measured (at least partially) by test scores, then of course some teachers will tailor their instruction to the tests. Those teachers may not be the ones getting federally funded raises, but it seems obvious that the program will motivate more educators to spend time dishing out multiple-choice tips in hopes of getting a raise.

None of this is to say that using test scores to evaluate teacher performance is wrong. As NEWSWEEK reported back in March, if we want to improve public education we have to reward good teachers and punish bad ones. Whether or not standardized tests should be a serious part of that evaluation is an important question to ask, one that the secretary of education should weigh in on—not deflect.