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Editorial: Time to limit standardized tests

President Barack Obama took to social media this weekend to criticize the national education trend of mandated testing and, by extension, what's been called "teaching to the test." We hope some education administrators were listening.

On Saturday, Obama and the U.S. Department of Education released what they called a Testing Action Plan, a relatively simple proposal that included a suggestion that included the idea to limit to 2 percent the annual classroom time used on taking standardized testing. A recent study by the Council of Great City Schools, a national organization that it says represents the needs of the country's urban public schools, said that the average student today takes about 112 mandated tests between kindergarten and 12th grade.

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In a video he posted on Facebook, the president said that in "moderation, smart, strategic tests can help us measure our kids' progress in school, and it can help them learn. But I also hear from parents who, rightly, worry about too much testing, and from teachers who feel so much pressure to teach to a test that it takes the joy out of teaching and learning, both for them and for the students.''

We think he's right. The president's words come as a welcome addition to the sometimes deafening cry from teachers who feel they've lost all flexibility in the classroom. For years, we've heard their complaints that getting a student to pass a standardized test is more important than the actual learning experience. The days of an inspirational teacher motivating a student aren't gone but the required government testing isn't helping. At the root of the problem, the study says, is this ever-evolving mixture of tests piled upon more tests that has contributed to the building of an educational environment that seems to value statistical outcomes more than real learning and absorption of knowledge.

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The federal Testing Action Plan offers state and local education systems ways to reduce what The Washington Post called redundant and low-quality testing. It planned to do so by offering federal staff time, dollars and, most importantly, a pledge to do away with or amend some federal guidelines that have made the public school testing requirements so onerous. Outgoing Education Secretary Arne Duncan issued a statement that almost sounded like an apology for government's role in the mandated testing. "At the federal, state and local level, we have all supported policies that have contributed to the problem in implementation,' he said.

The trouble as we see it, and as Duncan alludes to, is that there are too many experts who want to fix our educational systems. They've made the environment too complicated and too bureaucratic. We don't deny that some federal standards must exist. But the notion of re-thinking the reasons for these tests would, in our mind, eliminate the need for most of them. With President Obama's recent comments, we have an opportunity for real testing reform. We only hope that the president follows through and puts action to his words.

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