Curriculum Opinion

In Defense of Judgment

By Diane Ravitch — October 02, 2007 3 min read
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Dear Deb,

It’s no big surprise that “standards” involve judgments. Only standards related to physical objects are fixed, like systems of weights and measurements (e.g., the metric system).

But any standard that involves decision-making, real decision-making, means that human judgment is required. People make decisions about what is considered a passing score on the medical boards, on the law school admissions tests, even on the pass mark for the written test to get a driver’s license. Some group of fallible human beings decides what constitutes the appropriate body of knowledge, and how much of that knowledge the applicant should possess. This may be a “viewpoint,” but there could be no standards at all without relying on the judgment of people who are hopefully, presumably “knowledgeable” about what constitutes a passing mark.

As part of my own ideological evolution, which I referred to in an earlier post, I have come to believe that no single measure should be completely determinative and that students (and others) should have not only multiple measures of their capacity but multiple opportunities to demonstrate it. There was a time when my faith in testing was greater than it is today, when I thought that a single test could serve as a proxy for a pile of judgments. But my view now is that the test matters—it reveals whether students have mastered what was taught (math, for example) or what they learned in their home environment (vocabulary, concepts). But it is also the case, as I readily admit, that some students are not good test-takers and that some tests are simply not very good tests. Therefore, I would not want to have anyone’s life or career or year in school judged by a single test score.

We know that college admissions, for example, depend on a range of measures. Admissions officers consider many pieces of evidence: grades, test scores, the student’s essay, letters of recommendation, and other signifiers of the student’s readiness and motivation for college-level work. The more competitive the college, the likelier it is to have this elaborate process of review. Granted, schools do not have the time or resources to make so nuanced a decision about every student every year. Tests are a shortcut for saving time and resources. The danger—and I agree with you that the danger has turned into a present-day reality—is that the tests become not only a shortcut, but the only means of judgment, a substitution for human decision-making and for the multiple measures that should be considered when the stakes are high (promotion, graduation).

I disagree with you about the “expertise” involved in deciding what kids “should” be reading. Those decisions are made all the time. They are made by textbook publishers and editors. The results of those decisions are to be found in the literature textbooks used in the majority of American public schools. When I was writing “The Language Police,” I ordered every mass-market literature textbook used in the schools. I was really chagrined; the decisions had been made, and from my point of view, they were uniformly awful. I am a strong believer that literature taught in schools should be a mix of the classic and the modern, but that it should all be really wonderful literature by someone’s lights. What I found instead was about 30-40 percent good literature, classic and new, and a lot of assorted trivia. Also a huge proportion of the books devoted to graphics and blank space.

I don’t know whether or not you agree with me about the importance of classic literature (I am referring here not to the ancients, but to English and American writers who are generally acknowledged to be worth reading like Shakespeare, Donne, Mill, Thoreau, Dickinson, Longfellow). To make my case, I prepared two anthologies, “The American Reader” (1991), which is multiculturally American, and “The English Reader” (2006), which I edited with my son Michael. Sorry to be self-referential, but these books were my attempt to gather the wonderful things that are usually left out of the prescribed curriculum in the literature textbooks, and to save busy teachers the time required to find all these pieces. To anyone who says, “but that’s not what I would choose,” I say, “okay, choose your own.” No problem.

I know, having studied the history of curriculum, that the content of history textbooks and literature textbooks changes from generation to generation. So it has been and so it ever will be. But we should not throw out all we have known in the past as irrelevant. That way lies a generation with no common grounds for discussion and debate, with no songs to sing communally. That way leaves to commercial interests all that we know.


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