Diane Ravitch on the Failure of High Stakes Testing in Two Parts

Diane Ravitch: The Virtue of Admitting Error

In a speech last week, education expert Diane Ravitch (and not for the first time) did something that our politicians are scared to death of doing: She admitting that she can be, and has been wrong:

I said that I was wrong. I was wrong on every count. Testing should be used for diagnostic purposes, to help students and teachers, but it has turned into a blunt instrument that is used to reward and punish teachers and schools. Charters should serve the neediest, but, with some notable exceptions, they have become aggressive and entrepreneurial. Instead of seeking out the neediest students, many of them exclude the neediest students and skim the best.

At this point, saying it once more only reinforces the obvious–for her personally and for the issues, generally.  It has been years since Ravitch first stepped away from her old beliefs, and the broad acceptance of the value of standardized testing and charter schools has finally begun to deteriorate.  But the battle, though the tide may be turning, isn’t over.  The press needs to continue, and Ravitch, bless her, continues to press.

Just five years ago, anyone making this claim of hers would have been seen as an extremist:

The entire current reform movement rests on a fanatical belief in standardized testing. Yet testing experts warn us that the tests should be used for diagnostic purposes, not to fire teachers and close schools. The basic rule of testing is that a test should be used only for the purpose for which it was designed. A test of fifth grade reading tests whether students can read at a fifth grade level; it is not a test of teacher quality. Testing experts warn that tests are subject to statistical error, measurement error, and human error. Sometimes the answer is wrong. Sometimes the question is wrong. Sometimes a thoughtful child will pick the wrong answer because it sounds plausible.

Now, it’s a standard drumbeat of the push-back against what Ravitch these days admits is a mis-named “reform” movement, one more attuned to corporate profit than to the improvement of education.  She asks:

So why would we make testing the most important measure of education? Why would we take the technology that is most discouraging to children in the bottom half and then insist that it matters more than anything else? Why would we give more credibility to standardized tests than to teachers’ and parents’ judgments about children’s potential?

She continues, later, with some more questions, the very questions that have led many of us to resist the “reform” movement, and to have done so for years:

Do we want to be a decent society or a decadent society? Do we want to nurture, protect and inspire all of our children? Do we want children who are leaders or followers? Do we want to make sure that this generation of young people is prepared to sustain our democracy? Do we want citizens prepared to ask questions or just to answer questions posed by authorities?

We must stop the trash talk about our public schools and dedicate ourselves to making every one of them a school that is just right for all our children. Yes, it will cost more, but ignorance and neglect are much more expensive.

Ravitch is right… today, and has been for some years now.  That she was once wrong and was able, in the light of new evidence, to change her mind, shows that she is one of the few real intellectuals with prominence in today’s public sphere in America.  Unlike the entertainers who pose as pundits on TV, who are wedded to their positions simply because those positions define the personae they play, Ravitch looks to learn and understand, not simply to argue.

That makes her an exemplar, too, for our students.  She’s not just an advocate but shows what our children should strive to become.

If we ever win the battle over education, winning it for real reform and not for greed, she will deserve all of our thanks.

Skinner, Freire… and Ravitch

In that same speech last week, Diane Ravitch said:

The philanthropists and Wall Street hedge fund managers and Republicans and the Obama administration and assorted rightwing billionaires have some ideas about how to change American education. They aren’t teachers but they think they know how to fix the schools.

Their ideas boil down to this strategy: NCLB [No Child Left Behind] failed because we didn’t use enough carrots and sticks. They say that schools should operate like businesses, because the free market is more efficient than government. So these reformers—I call them corporate reformers—advocate market-based reforms. They say that states must hand public schools over to private management because the private sector will be more successful than the public sector. They say that teachers will work harder if they get bonuses when test scores go up. They say that teachers should have no job protections because workers in the private sector don’t have job protections, not even the right to a hearing. They say that if schools have low scores, they should be closed and replaced by new schools, just like a chain store—a burger franchise or a shoe store–would be closed if it didn’t make a profit; or the entire staff should be fired and replaced by new staff. They say that the quality of teachers should be judged based on whether their students’ scores go up or down.

This is nonsense, of course—which is Ravitch’s point.  It is nonsense for reasons that few bother to consider seriously these days.  It is nonsense because in precludes the diversity of ideas, people, and possibilities that are at the heart of good education—along with dialogue, the mutual exploration whose goal is to shed light on the unknown.  Education needs to be something of an oxymoron, of ‘planned chaos,’ something that cannot be attained through standardized testing, where everything is funneled toward pre-set benchmarks.

Writing in the sixties (and using a different sense of ‘diversity’ than we often do now—but including our contemporary one), B. F. Skinner wrote of education that:

in the long run, an effective diversity must be planned.  There is no virtue in accident as such, nor can we trust it.  The advantages of a planned diversity have been abundantly demonstrated in science.  Men first learned about the world through accidental contacts under accidental conditions and, hence, only within the range of accident.  Scientific methods are largely concerned with increasing the diversity of the conditions under which things are known.  Current differences among our students are for the most part accidents.  A technology of teaching should permit us to diversify environmental histories and increase the range of the mutations from which the cultures of the future will be selected.  (Skinner, The Technology of Teaching, 236)

Things change; our education should be ready for that and should be part of that.  By establishing exactly what should be learned, and by judging teaching on that basis, we make this impossible.  New thought comes through encounter with the unknown, and diversity—of all sorts—promotes that.  Preparing for tests does not.  Operating schools like businesses does not, either.

Through the attitudes of today’s “reformers,” we also are making dialogue impossible.  As Paulo Freire wrote at about the same time Skinner was writing, dialogue is an essential part of that diversity of Skinner’s and of education, dialogue based on love, humility, and faith—not only as preparation for filling in answer sheets:

Nor yet can dialogue exist without hope.  Hope is rooted in men’s incompletion, from which they move out in constant search—a search which can be carried out only in communion with other men.  Hopelessness is a form of silence, of denying the world and fleeing from it….  As long as I fight, I am moved by hope; and if I fight with hope, then I can wait.  As the encounter of men seeking to be more fully human, dialogue cannot be carried out in a climate of hopelessness.  (Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 80)

Working to impress an unknown test preparer or unknown grader (in the case of standardized essay exams) almost completely removes hope from the equation… taking it out as effectively as it removes love, humility, and faith.  These are, in Freire’s view, the basis for any real dialogue—and dialogue and diversity are the basis for any real education. The regimens of the group Ravitch describes squelch both.  They run counter to effective education instead of promoting it.

It is time we stop this nonsense and return education to promotion of learning, through diversity, dialogue, experiment and, yes, risk.

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