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Measure What You Treasure: What Does School Testing Really Tell Us?

Jan 04, 2011

Critics of public education have asserted that American schools are failing children and in need of reform. Many experts have for years advocated the power of testing to help raise standards and improve teacher accountability. But one education advocate suggests the emphasis on testing is the wrong approach for improving schools.

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diane ravitch school reform The Death and Life of the Great American School System

A Shift in Perspective

As assistant secretary of education under two presidents during the 1990s, Diane Ravitch was an outspoken proponent of using testing to promote school accountability. Some 20 years later, she is one of the most outspoken opponents of many of the education reforms she once fervently supported - including standardized tests.

Ravitch's reasoning: Evidence has not shown that accountability measures from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) legislation, enacted into law in 2001, have done anything to improve school performance. In fact, she suggests that schools have actually become worse in the wake of the law. Rather than point the finger at 'bad teachers,' though, Ravitch believes that it is the policy that is flawed.

In her book titled The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, Ravitch asserts that No Child Left Behind's mandate that students reach proficiency in subject areas by 2014 has led to nothing more than states lowering education standards. As Ravitch stated in an interview with U.S. News & World Report, 'What we're doing instead of producing well-educated people is producing the numbers. The gains since No Child Left Behind was adopted are smaller than before No Child Left Behind was adopted.'

diane ravitch school reform The Death and Life of the Great American School System

NCLB's Widespread Effects

Many critics of standardized testing practices have cited a tendency among some educators to 'teach to the test,' foregoing instructional strategies that more heavily emphasize problem solving, critical thinking and creativity. Why, though, are proficiency rates not improving more significantly if standardized tests are such a focus of a schools' attention?

In her damning analysis, Ravitch observes that No Child Left Behind has created an environment that doesn't reward but punishes. Teachers failing to produce 'proficient' students are routinely fired, schools not able to meet learning objectives closed. She argues that the ensuing flood of students to (often privately operated) charter schools only serves to worsen the problem, siphoning away valuable public investment.

Ravitch makes the case that numbers-based proficiency criteria produce a system in which teachers - who don't believe in the efficacy of testing procedures - are forced to teach in ways they don't agree with out of fear of not 'meeting the numbers.' Thus, bad policy is exacerbating the challenges schools face in adequately preparing students. As Ravitch writes in her book, 'Testing is not a substitute for curriculum and instruction. Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators and closing schools.'

What Ravitch does advocate for is a greater focus on socioeconomic equality. While she fully believes that school reforms are necessary, Ravitch feels they must be coupled with initiatives to create more opportunity in impoverished communities, where the majority of struggling schools are found. Also important is a shift away from the demonization of schools and teachers that results from a business-based model. The education of American children, she urges, should not be a numbers game.

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