Despite what some might think, I’m not the biggest Diane Ravitch fan. She’s a Johnny-Come-Lately (albeit an influential one), and her ability to assess quantitative data is somewhat limited. That said, as a historian, she does have a good grasp of the context surrounding many educational issues. For example, this filleting of New York’s Chancellor of the Board of Regents Merryl Tisch (boldface mine):
It’s totally inappropriate to compare opting out of testing to opting out of immunization. One has a scientific basis, the other has none. The tests that kids take today have nothing to do with the tests that we took when we were kids. When we were kids, we took an hour test to see how we did in reading, an hour test to so how we did in math. Children today in third grade are taking eight hours of testing. They’re spending more time taking tests than people taking the bar exam.
Now, when we talk about the results of the test, they come back four to six months later. The kids already have a different teacher. And all they get is a score and a ranking. The teachers can’t see the item analysis. They can’t see what the kids got wrong. They can’t — they’re getting no instructional gain, no possibility of improvement for the kids, because there’s no value to the test. They have no diagnostic value.
If you go to a doctor and you say, ‘I have a pain,’ and the doctor says, ‘I’ll get back to you in six months,’ and he gets back to you and tells you how you compare to everyone else in the state, but he doesn’t have any medicine for you…
You’re not helping poor kids when you put so much emphasis on the test. Then they lose arts, they lose physical education, they lose recess and they lose almost everything except test prep and they spend months doing test prep.
What Ravitch touches on, but I wish had made more clearly, is that these tests are not about assessing individual students. The rhetoric Tisch uses is disingenuous, as the tests can not–as a matter of education policy and contractual obligations with test providers–to tell individual students (and their teachers and parents) where they need to improve.
The tests exist solely to grade teachers. These are not educational tools, as Ravitch notes, but managerial ones. They are used to hire and fire teachers. That is why the NY Department of Education is panicked by the opt-out movement. It’s not the potential inability to assess state-wide or even school level student performance (certainly for the former, there are enough students in the state of New York taking the exams for the statistics to work).
No, it’s the possibility that the state won’t be able to evaluate individual teachers with the exams. I’ve discussed many times before how sample size issues make teacher evaluations incredibly imprecise and are inappropriate in hiring and firing decisions. Imagine if a significant number of teachers can’t be evaluated because too few of their students decide to take the tests (there aren’t a whole lot of strong conclusions that can be reached if only eight students per class take the tests). It certainly would give grounds for teachers to challenge the conclusions drawn from the tests.
What Tisch doesn’t want to say out loud, what she politically can’t say out loud, is that she, along with many other reformers, believe if only we could fire the bad teachers–and she believes there are a lot of them–then our educational problems would vanish. But many reformers, having realized the majority of parents* don’t believe this, understand they can’t explicitly make that claim. So they lie about why we supposedly need annual high-stakes* testing.
Update: After this post ‘went to press’, I came across this post discussing how New York’s Governor Cuomo has claimed the tests are meaningless for students.
*Personally, I don’t have a problem with annual ‘low stakes’ testing, as it does provide useful information. Though we’ve been gathering such information for a long time, and it doesn’t seem to result in obvious interventions such as giving equal school funding to low-income children.