Accountability Opinion

Tests Have Value, But Testing Is Being Misused

By Diane Ravitch — September 29, 2009 3 min read
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Alternate title: What Does the Best and Wisest Parent Want?

Dear Deborah,

I am glad to see that you are trying to draw us back to the issues where we have genuine differences! You and I agree that testing and accountability—as currently practiced under NCLB—have become enemies of good education. We would probably disagree on the value of testing. I do think that testing, when sensibly deployed, is valuable. I am not part of any anti-testing movement. I think it is important to know how students are doing, as compared with their past performance and as compared with others in their grade or age group, and even as compared with their peers in other nations. I also see the value of testing for admissions purposes, as there would be no point in bringing a poorly prepared student into a highly selective institution; he or she would certainly fail. The biggest problem today is not testing, but the misuse and abuse of testing, the way that schools, districts, states, and now the federal government are misusing the results of tests to make high-stakes decisions about teachers, students, principals, and schools.

The list that you draw up to describe the kind of curriculum for which schools should be accountable reminds me of the recently released core curriculum standards developed in English Language Arts and mathematics by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Like you, they would be comfortable with non-specific outcomes, though they do not make recommendations for history, science, the arts, and other subjects.

We could get into a heated argument about literature, history, and the arts. I don’t agree that the value of these subjects and of what is taught must await empirical evidence. While it is not true that “everyone should” read Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, and Homer, and it is likely the case that only a tiny proportion of the population has done so, I don’t think that this far-out reference should be used to bludgeon anyone who would argue for specific curriculum content.

I don’t agree that knowing history leads any to repeat and relive old enmities. Most old enmities are based on ignorance, fear, and misinformation. The more we know of history, the better able we are to defuse ignorance, fear, and misinformation. Nor do I agree, as you suggest (I hope playfully), that America’s success “correlates with its disdain for history.”

As for science, I suspect that superstition and belief in supernatural phenomena and conspiracy theories is the result of poor education in science. To the extent that we can teach students to seek evidence and rational explanations, we will reduce magical thinking and encourage the application of reason and intelligence.

For better or worse, I will always side with those who favor more education, not less. We have words for those who don’t know history, who have not read worthy literature, who know no science, and who are indifferent to the arts (and think that their doodles while daydreaming belong in a museum): Ignorant. Those who have no basis for reaching an educated judgment rely on hearsay, biases, prejudices, and the opinions that they picked up from their family and friends.

Thomas Jefferson said it first: Those who expect to remain both ignorant and free in a state of civilization expect what never was and never will be.

The Founding Fathers were themselves highly educated. They knew the muck of ignorance that had produced war after war in Europe, unending conflict over religion, and bitter enmities. They wanted something better in the new nation they were creating. To read their writings is to see how widely they read in history and literature, and how much they cared about learning the principles of science. To read them is to raise questions about whether we are as well educated today as they were. Some are, most aren’t. As Neil Postman titled one of his books, we are amusing ourselves to death and allowing popular culture—often degraded and corrupting—to determine the content of our minds.

Jefferson would be appalled. I think John Dewey would be, as well. It was Dewey who wrote that what the best and wisest parent wants for his child is what we should want for all children. I expect that Jefferson, Dewey, and that “best and wisest” parent could find common ground were they to break bread together. I would like to be there when they do!


P.S.: Please let’s turn to Arne Duncan’s latest statement about his plans for the renewal of No Child Left Behind!

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