2010-06-04 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

This is the fourth, and probably the last, of a series of columns detailing the words of a new book on education by one of the most knowledgeable educational historians in the nation.

“The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education,” by educational historian Diane Ravitch is a book that needs to be read by every educator and every parent who has a child in a New York City public school.

Ravitch worked in the federal education department under Bush One and was instrumental in pushing for standardized testing and charter schools.

She has taken a long, hard look at what has happened to American education in the past ten years, however, and come to the conclusion, as have I, that there is little education going on in today’s schools. I am going to let Ravitch speak for herself. What follows are quotes directly from her book.

On standardized tests, Regents Tests and smoke and mirrors. (page 108):

In New York City, teachers told journalists that they eliminated social studies, art and science for a month before the state reading and mathematics tests to concentrate on test-prep activities. One teacher said that her students don’t know who the president was during the Civil War, but they can tell you how to eliminate an answer on a multiple-choice test. And, as long as test scores were up, everyone will be happy. Her principal directed her to forget about everything except test prep. Actual education comes second.

A similar phenomenon affected New York’s Regents examination, on which students must score 65 to receive a high school diploma. Many students would have failed to reach this high bar but state officials took care of their difficulty by adjusting the cut scores. The public probably assumed that a student who had received a 65 had correctly answered 65 percent of the questions. But, in algebra, a student would receive a 65 if he earned only 34.5 percent of the possible points. To win 65 percent on the Biology Regents, the student needed to earn only 46 percent of the possible points. With this intricate conversion formula, a Regents Diploma was turned into a goal that almost any high school student could reach. By making it easier to pass the Regents exams, state officials helped increase the graduation rate as well.

The trouble with test-base accountability is that it imposes serious consequences on children, educators and schools on the basis of scores that may reflect measurement error, statistical error, random variation and a host of environmental factors or student attributes. None of us would want to be evaluated – with our livelihood and reputation on the line – solely on the basis of an instrument that is prone to error and ambiguity. The tests now in use are not adequate by themselves to the task of gauging the quality of schools or teachers. They were designed for specific purposes: to measure whether students can read and can do mathematics, and even in these tasks, they must be used with awareness of their limitations and variability. They were not designed to capture the most important dimensions of education, for which we do not have measures.

The issue was addressed in 1988, when a group of esteemed members of the National Academy of Education, led by psychologist Robert Glaser, commented on the value of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. They worried that the NAEP might measure only reading, mathematics and writing. They wrote, ‘While these competencies are important prerequisites for living in our modern world and fundamental to our general and continuing education, they represent only a portion of the goals of elementary and secondary schooling. They represent neither the humanities nor the aesthetic and moral aims of education that cannot be measured.’ The scholars warned that when test results become the arbiter of future choices, a subtle shift occurs in which fallible and partial indicators of academic achievement are transformed into major goals of schooling … Those personal qualities that we hold dear – resilience and courage in the face of stress, a sense of craft in our work, a commitment to justice and caring in our social relationship, a dedication to advancing the public good in our communal life – are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured.

My favorite teacher was Mrs. Ruby Ratliff. She is the teacher I remember best, the one who influenced me most, who taught me to love literature and to write with careful attention to grammar and syntax. She did nothing for our self-esteem. She challenged us to meet her exacting standards.

I think of Mrs. Ratliff when I hear the latest proposals to improve the teaching force. Every day I come across a statement by a journalist, superintendent or economist who says that we could solve all of our problems in American education if we could just recruit a sufficient number of great teachers. I think that Mrs. Ratliff was a great teacher, but I don’t think that she would be considered great if she had been judged by the kind of hard data that is used now. How could experts have measured what we learned in her class? We never took a multiple-choice test. We wrote essays and took written tests in which we had to explain our answers, not check a box or fill in a bubble. If she had been evaluated by the grades she gave, she would have been in deep trouble, because she did not award many A grades. An observer might have concluded that she was a very ineffective teacher who had no measurable gains to show for her work.

Data driven education leaders say that academic performance lags because we don’t have enough effective teachers, the ones whose students consistently improve their standardized test scores. To some economists and business leaders, this analysis makes sense because it reflects the way free markets supposedly work. In the free market, incentives and sanctions matter. What works in the private sector should also work in the public sector. Or, so theorists say, not taking note of the many instances when executives of failed corporations collected huge bonuses after the stockholders lost everything.

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