Assessment Opinion

Reports, Reform, and Hype

By Diane Ravitch — June 24, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

I can’t believe that we are debating the message of A Nation at Risk in 2008, a quarter century after it appeared!

We have been agreeing so much lately that it is useful that we remember that we do have plenty of differences. That way, we can continue to try to bridge them.

This is one issue where we definitely disagree. The reason that the commission that wrote Nation at Risk focused on schools was because the name of the commission was “The National Commission on Excellence in Education.” Its charge was to “present a report on the quality of education in America,” not to propose needed changes in society and the economic order. Its chair, David P. Gardner, president of the University of California, said in his introductory letter that the goal of the report was to identify problems and to provide solutions, “not to search for scapegoats.”

Nor was the report unduly focused on blaming the schools for productivity decline. What it did say, which makes sense to me, is:

Knowledge, learning, information, and skilled intelligence are the new raw materials of international commerce and are today spreading throughout the world as vigorously as miracle drugs, synthetic fertilizers, and blue jeans did earlier. If only to keep and improve on the slim competitive edge we still retain in world markets, we must dedicate ourselves to the reform of our educational system for the benefit of all—old and young alike, affluent and poor, majority and minority. Learning is the indispensable investment required for success in the ‘information age’ we are entering.
Our concern, however, goes well beyond matters of industry and commerce. It also includes the intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people which knit together the very fabric of our society. The people of the United States need to know that individuals in our society who do not possess the levels of skill, literacy, and training essential to this new era will be effectively disenfranchised, not simply from the material rewards that accompany competent performance, but also from the chance to participate fully in our national life. A high level of shared education is essential to a free, democratic society and to the fostering of a common culture, especially in a country that prides itself on pluralism and individual freedom.

And more: “What is at risk is the promise first made on this continent: All, regardless of race or class or economic status, are entitled to a fair chance and to the tools for developing their individual powers of mind and spirit to the utmost.”

Nothing in these lines or in many others that I could quote can be construed as teacher-bashing. If the commission failed to ask questions about “other institutional and system failures that need to be addressed,” the same criticism could be directed to scores of other reports about school reform.

It is easy to nitpick a report because the people who wrote it did not know what we know now. They did not know, for example, that the decline in test scores—which began in the mid-1960s—bottomed out in 1980-81. We know that now. But they were writing in 1982 and did not. You know that hindsight is characterized by 20-20 vision.

Meanwhile, back to the ranch or back to the present. On one day, I received conflicting news stories in my email: One from Baltimore, which is about to jump on the small-school bandwagon; the other from Portland, Oregon, where small schools (started much earlier) have lost their luster.

Then this past week, New York State reported phenomenal test score gains, some in double digits, in every district and in almost every grade. These scores are in conflict with the state and city NAEP scores of last fall, which showed that New York’s scores in reading and math (except for 4th grade math) for the past two years were unchanged. Now, here is an interesting puzzle: How did New York State (and New York City) move from flat scores over the past few years to a phenomenal jump in 2008? Should we call it the miracle of 2008? From my experience with large-scale testing, I have learned to be dubious about any one-year changes that are large, whether up or down. One child may have an amazing improvement or loss, but it is unlikely that an entire district or state will see a sudden change of the magnitude reported by New York State.

What do you think is going on?


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