Resisting Reforms: On Diane Ravitch
Ravitch offers a stinging account of the unintended consequences and collateral damage produced by high-stakes standardized tests of basic skills in math and reading, as well as by many of the more general state tests. The social-minded will note, accurately, that the Bush administration's focus on test scores kept alive through a nasty conservative time the pressing question of the quality of US schools for the poor. But test experts and professional organizations have for some time warned (to little effect) that the practice of "testism" endorsed by NCLB—using any single test to make any consequential decisions about a child, a teacher, a classroom, or a school—is actually a form of educational malpractice. No tests were designed for such purposes; evaluations of a student's or school's progress, or need for remediation, require evidence in multiple forms. Ravitch opposes testism, not testing itself. Like many in education, she favors an intelligent use of assessment to help children and teachers improve at the decisive local school and classroom level. She is a strong supporter of the useful and informative federal National Assessment of Educational Progress test (NAEP), which samples students in fourth, eighth and twelfth grades in math, reading and writing, and which does not provide scores for individual students and schools, though it can offer results for some selected large urban school districts. NAEP is reliable because its sampling design resists the workings of Campbell's Law, "The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
Testing should be a means to better education, not the goal. The tests are volatile; slight changes can shift scores a lot. Test prep, for example, can make a great difference. Since the tests rely on a very few items, one or two words remembered or coached from a past test can shift the results greatly. One or two kids taking a test can change a school's fate. (Pushing out low-performing kid can improve a school's scores.) These tests have nothing like the solidity of your grandmother's spelling tests. They have become, as Ravitch says, a costly distraction from true educational substance: they are teaching kids that the point of school is test-taking, not serious academic achievement, that it is a worthy endeavor to guess shrewdly and pick well from among four canned and context-free answers. No wonder the best teachers are stricken with reform fatigue, fed up with NCLB and dreaming of leaving the profession.
When high stakes are attached to standardized tests of basic skills in math and reading, the incentives for schools to narrow the curriculum are irresistible. Thanks to testism, in math and reading more complex and ambitious understandings and practices are being undermined. In reading, for example, comprehension, making use of ideas and grappling with books and writing for genuine purposes are sacrificed to drills in skills. Kids are less likely to love books, use them well and become life-long readers, crucial goals of any decent literacy program. Across the curriculum, areas of knowledge not subject to a high-stakes test are scaled back or eliminated. Testism is decimating sound educational practices in preschools and classrooms for younger children, who now lack time for imaginative play and the kind of free choices that are the developmental dress rehearsal for human culture outside school. Testism has also accentuated the rigidity of schools, especially at the elementary level; the efforts of central offices and principals to script both novice and veteran classroom teachers have impeded efforts to serve families and children flexibly and with individual attention. Immigrants and the poor are not benefiting from the sort of acceptance that schools often provided newcomers during previous hard times and periods of mass migration. The narrowing of aims and content is always serious for the disadvantaged kids in vulnerable schools whom federal policy is supposed to help most.
Even by the flickering lights of testism, NCLB is a flop. NCLB has not produced large gains in reading or math tests. Recent national tests show that US eighth graders have actually made no improvement in reading since 1998. Ravitch tells the story of New York City, where neo-capitalist reformers have touted test scores to legitimize their reforms, and now would like to use them to close public schools and grow charters. NAEP scores in New York City, however, remained mostly unchanged in 2003–07. The results are equally unimpressive across the entire United States, and even in Chicago, where mayoral control and Arne Duncan (previously the superintendent of the Chicago Public Schools and now President Obama's Secretary of Education) were once thought to have performed miracles. By mandating a weirdly utopian, even Biblical, end-time of "100 percent proficiency by 2014," NCLB has encouraged states to lower their standards and make false claims of progress. Worse, it has vilified schools that cannot meet its unrealistic expectations. These "failing" schools are now targeted for closing and privatization by the Obama administration's Race to the Top program.
With the Obama initiatives very much in mind, Ravitch argues that the term "failing schools" should no longer be used to describe schools with low test scores. Historians of the future will shake their heads in sorrow at the way a generation of politicians and reformers had the nerve—or blindness—to evaluate and punish resource-starved schools and teachers that serve poor communities according to the exact same measures used to assess lavishly appointed schools in wealthy communities. No business-minded school reformer, they will sadly note, ever admitted out loud what, as Leonard Cohen would put it, "everybody knows": the test scores closely mirror US socioeconomic status. If a school scores low, Ravitch writes, it is often because many of its students may speak or read English very poorly, if at all; they miss school frequently because they baby-sit siblings while parents look for work or have disabilities that interfere with learning. To note these extracurricular circumstances, she says, is not to excuse low scores or to dodge school reform but to stress that a school's "failure" is also linked to inequalities outside the school's walls.