Assessment Opinion

Test scores and quicksand

By Diane Ravitch — June 15, 2007 2 min read
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Dear Deb,

Your trip sounds wonderful, fascinating, and even worth the physical stress. I didn’t mention it before, but after my trip to China in 1998, I became quite ill as a direct result of an 18-hour flight. Of course, stuff happens here, too. Last week, I was supposedly flying from Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, to NYC, which should have been a routine flight. The air-traffic-control system somehow went down, and it took me 15 hours of travel to actually make the trip. I would have preferred to go to China!

Your remarks about how a controlled media produces confusing data resonated with me. And I agree with you that the miraculous numbers claimed by Mayor Bloomberg in NYC are dubious, as Jack Jennings’ claims for the effects of NCLB are tenuous. In the case of Bloomberg, we have the bizarre instance of someone who knows nothing about curriculum or instruction (both the Mayor and his chancellor) claiming credit for miraculous score increases. If they are right, then the answer must be to improve the schools by getting rid of all the educators, or erecting a giant guillotine outside every schoolhouse door to threaten anyone whose scores fall instead of rise. As for Jack Jennings’ report, it was widely cited in the press as evidence that NCLB is working, but I don’t think it is possible to find a causal link or even to say that the rising scores are evidence of better education. The kids everywhere are being test-prepped to a fare-thee-well, and as one of our readers earlier commented, we may be raising a generation of test-takers who are not educated (actually I think the phrase was “a generation of idiots”).

I don’t trust the numbers either. When scores rise miraculously, it’s a good bet that one of two things have happened: a) Either the test was made easier, or, b) some low-performing students were excluded from the testing population. A subcategory under point (a) is that the cut score on the test was lowered, even while the content remained the same.

There has also been a rash of cheating incidents—in Texas and California. Now that the tests are high-stakes, and now that some jurisdictions plan to attach bonuses (or sanctions) to test scores, we can expect to see more of that.

I was at a meeting yesterday in D.C. where someone mentioned that the main issue in education is the same today as it was in Herbert Spencer’s time, more than a century ago: “What knowledge is of most worth?” When he said that, I knew he was out of touch with contemporary developments. The business leaders and politicians never ask that question. They just want to know how high can the scores go and how quickly.

The quicksand is rising.

Welcome home!


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