Assessment Opinion

Right Answers, Wrong Answers

By Diane Ravitch — May 27, 2008 4 min read

Dear Deborah,

I didn’t suggest that “good medical care” was “test-prepping.” Just goes to show how easily words are misunderstood, how important it is to teach grammar, syntax, spelling, etc. so as to improve the clarity of our expression. When I went to public school in Houston, our English teachers devoted half of every year in their classes to teaching correct grammar. It was never fun, but it was very valuable. I am reminded on a daily basis of the importance of good grammar and syntax; without them, we will all of us have trouble communicating what we mean. And as you well know, your notion of democracy—and mine—depends on citizens being able to reason together, to listen to one another, and to get the drift of discussion because they share a common vocabulary with a considerable body of shared knowledge.

Like you, I too have always been puzzled when newspaper articles announce with alarm that half the children in a grade are “below grade level.” Grade level, as you note, is the norm for a particular grade, and at any given moment, half the students will always be above grade level, while the other half are below. This will be true whether achievement goes up or down.

The trend in recent years, inspired by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, is to devise criterion-referenced tests, where students are judged by whether they reach a certain level of knowledge and skill (basic, proficient, advanced). There is no magical “grade level” in such tests. We regularly see NAEP results where only a small fraction are advanced, and where most students are clustered at basic or below basic.

As for the question of right answers and wrong answers, I agree with you in part and disagree in part. I share your revulsion for test questions that gauge students’ opinions, feelings, and values. When I served on the NAEP board, I frequently reviewed test questions and made sure that the national test avoided such stances. It seemed to me outrageous to grade a student on whether they expressed a politically correct attitude.

Where I disagree is that you seem to suggest that there is no such thing as a “right” answer. If I asked you who was elected president of the United States in 1960, don’t you think there is a right answer? If I asked you to multiply ½ x ¾, don’t you think there is a right answer?

Given my experience with NAEP over seven years, I agree with your concern about the meld among IQ questions, reading questions, and math questions. It is almost inevitable that a reading question or a math question will turn out to be a test of intelligence; it is very hard to separate comprehension from whatever we call IQ. To take the issue one step further, I was troubled to see the trend in which math questions were turned into reading questions, a trend found in most tests in the past 15 years or so.

Part of the difficulty comes from the effort to test critical thinking and problem-solving ability in math. The goal sounds laudable, but the questions tend to be so wordy that a student with good math ability but poor reading skills is handicapped by the form of the question.

By the way, I can’t speak for ETS’s historical practice of playing around with items, as you put it, “to ensure that male scores more properly matched or surpassed female scores.” Whether that is true, I do not know. What I do know is that girls regularly outperform boys in reading on NAEP, by a wide margin, while boys do better than girls in math, but the gap is smaller than in reading.

I think your suggestion that the performance of black students, as compared with white students, is a function of the test questions is simply wrong. For at least the last 20 years, the tests—national and state—have been scoured to remove any hint of racial or cultural bias (forgive me, but I wrote a book about this, “The Language Police”). The racial gap on test scores is large, and I personally attribute it to inequality of educational opportunity, not the wording of the test items. The suggestion that the gap would disappear if the tests were changed doesn’t hold water.

I agree with the hint in your postscript that the achievement gap is in part a function of very large gaps in income and social advantage. That should be no surprise. Demography and socio-economic status have long been powerful determinants of educational achievement. Just because we have a federal law that declares that all children will be proficient by the year 2014 does not change those facts of life. I don’t know of anyone who thinks that the gaps will be closed and that no child will be left behind by 2014.

It seems safe to say, however, that thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of public schools will be declared failures by 2014 for not having met that impossible goal. This will give an enormous boost to the forces that are promoting privatization of public education.


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