Assessment Opinion

Ravitch and Zhao: Ricochet

By Marc Tucker — September 25, 2014 4 min read
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In my last blog, I responded to a piece that Anthony Cody wrote about our recent paper on accountability, which Diane Ravitch had made room for on her blog. Then Diane responded to my response to Cody’s piece. Still following me? Good. Then Diane provided more space on her blog for yet another impassioned attack on our accountability paper by Yong Zhao. In this blog, I will have something quite brief to say about Diane’s response and a bit more to say about Yong Zhao’s critique. I promise this will be the end of the string, because I have a long series of blogs coming on the current state of the Common Core that I would like to get on with.

First, Diane’s comments. She characterized my comments on Cody’s critique and her own comments on both our report and Cody’s critique as an attempt by me to pick a quarrel where none exists. And then she listed a number of points on which she and I agree, among them that schools would have higher test scores if there were less poverty, that teachers should be better prepared for their work, that they should get more mentoring and support and higher salaries. Yes, we do agree on those things and I’m glad she pointed that out.

Then she picks out an area on which she thinks we disagree. She does not think that high stakes tests are necessary to improve teaching and learning. She offers a list of the nation’s most elite, private independent schools as evidence for her point. In effect, she is saying that, if these schools don’t use standardized tests, and they are by common consent among the very best schools in the country, that shows that standardized tests are not a necessary component of good schooling. That’s where Yong Zhao comes in.

Zhao reasons as follows: If [Tucker] believes, "...that our test-based accountability system ‘is not only ineffective but harmful,’ [Tucker] would logically suggest that system be abandoned. Instead he tries to fix it and the fixes include more tests, more high stakes tests, and more standardized tests.”

Yup, that is what I proposed. But I see no inconsistency here. I do not think all standardized tests are bad, nor did I ever suggest that I think they are. Quite the contrary. I have seen many, in different parts of the world, that are very good indeed. What I am opposed to is cheap standardized tests that trivialize what is to be learned and cheat children of a good education and cheat teachers of the chance to teach the rich curriculum they know their students need. I was arguing not that the United States needs to abandon standardized tests, but that it needs much better standardized tests, administered at fewer grade levels.

My organization runs a high school reform initiative called Excellence For All. Its design is based in part on the use of a Board Examination Program (a closely aligned system of standards, curriculum and examinations based on the Common Core) offered to high school freshmen and sophomores by the University of Cambridge. The pilot high schools include everything from a school serving fairly upscale mostly majority kids in Phoenix to a high school serving mostly very poor and minority kids in the Mississippi Delta. When the teachers first looked at the Cambridge examinations and the curriculum material that came with them, they told us that what they were looking at was the curriculum they had always wanted to teach. They had no problem with the idea of teaching to these examinations because the examinations honored their conception of what teaching and learning ought to be about. For decades, the ambition of most high school teachers has been to teach Advanced Placement classes. Those teachers are teaching to a test. In both the case of Advanced Placement and the schools in our pilot initiative, there are high stakes, but they are for the students, not the teachers. And that is exactly what I proposed in our accountability paper.

The University of Cambridge International General Certificate of Secondary Education examinations are not widely known in the United States, which is why the elite schools Diane mentioned don’t use them, but they are used in schools in about 175 countries around the world, often in schools quite comparable in every way to the ones Diane named. Why? First because they are first rate, and second because the Cambridge name connotes quality and high standards. That is, they are very good standardized tests that are reliably scored. The fact of the matter is that the vast majority of top performing countries use standardized tests. The difference between the United States and these countries is not that we use standardized tests and they don’t, but that they use census testing only one, two or three times in a student’s whole career in school and the tests are very, very good, and we test interminably with very poor quality tests.

There is a reason that Diane cited a list of private, not public, schools. Especially in this day and age, it is simply not possible for any state in the United States to deny parents the opportunity to compare student performance across public schools against a set of common standards and measures determined by the government. Nor should it be. To suggest otherwise is wishful thinking. The question is not whether there should be standardized tests, but what they should look like, what they should test, how often they are administered, how high their quality needs to be and how they are used.

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