Assessment Opinion

The Grand Illusion of Proficiency

By Diane Ravitch — December 04, 2007 4 min read

Dear Deb,

As usual, you raise lots of interesting questions and you sharpen our clear differences. Yes, I do think we should have national testing. This idea that fifty states should each have their own standards and their own tests is nutty. We are not getting higher standards; we may even be getting lower ones.

How did we get to this point? President Clinton’s Goals 2000 pushed the states to create their own standards and tests (Clinton, to his credit, actually preferred national tests, but he couldn’t persuade the Republican Congress to go along with his proposal for such tests). Then along came NCLB, and President Bush wanted a bigger emphasis on standards and testing, but knew that his own party would never accept national testing. So he built on the idea that each state should set its own standards, develop its own tests, grade its own progress towards the goal of having every student “proficient” in reading and mathematics by the year 2013-2014. Since the bill passed Congress in the fall of 2001, I assume that the goal of 2013-14 was based on the idea that this was the amount of time (12 years, starting in 2002) necessary to raise the achievement of children who were then in kindergarten.

As we both know, and as everyone knows who thinks about the matter, we will not reach the goal of having universal proficiency by 2014, unless we define “proficiency” to mean low-level, basic literacy.

Writing this goal, no matter how impossible and absurd, into federal law put pressure on the states to come up with plans to demonstrate that they intended to do it. How crazy was that? So every state has a year-by-year plan in which they will raise “proficiency” and “achievement” towards that elusive goal. This in turn guarantees that the states will dumb down their tests and focus relentlessly on test prep so that they can at least try to fulfill their promises to the feds.

We all know the results of this grand illusion.

First, we know from studies such as the one by the Center on Education Policy, that the curriculum has been narrowed in a majority of schools; many children are not having any chance to study the arts, history, or anything else that is not going to have an immediate impact on their reading and math scores. Though I would argue that children will get much higher reading scores if they spend more time learning history and engaging in the arts, school officials aren’t willing to take the risk. The scores must rise! And they must rise by constantly drilling the kids in how to take tests and in practicing the kinds of test items that they are likely to encounter on the state tests. As a result of this idiocy, we may be losing a generation of young people who associate schooling with the worst kind of drudgery and test grind.

Second, we know from studies such as “The Proficiency Illusion” by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (where I am a trustee) that many states are using a very low-level definition of proficiency in order to inflate their scores and claim progress. There are states that tell the public that a large majority of the students are “proficient,” and getting ever more proficient. Yet the proportion of students in these states who are proficient or even basic on NAEP remains nowhere near what the states are claiming.

We have a fundamental problem of honesty here. The public is being misled in most states about academic gains. NAEP is the only measure that is maintaining a consistent standard across the fifty states.

Yes, I believe we should have a scheme of national testing. Yes, you are right, I do not think that there should be “stakes” associated with national testing. I think that we should have national tests so that we have better information. Having watched the misuse of test results in NYC these past few years—where tests are being used to reward, punish, and grade students, teachers, principals, and schools, I would hate to see national tests corrupted in these ways. I see two healthy uses for national testing (I don’t expect you to agree): First, the tests should provide information that is reliable and consistent. Second, the tests should provide information with a diagnostic value, so that educational shortcomings can be addressed in a timely manner.

The irony is that we already have national standards. They aren’t exactly written out in a single document or series of documents. But if you want to know what they are, look at the handful of standardized tests given in states and districts; look at the textbooks used in the great majority of classrooms. These are not the standards that you or I would want; but there they are. I recall that about ten years ago, I gave a lecture in Wyoming on the subject of national standards and national tests. Several people in the audience, not surprisingly, objected, saying that they preferred their standards to be written in Wyoming. I pointed out that the textbooks most widely used in the state came from a New York City-based publisher and that the tests used by the state came from a testing company in New Hampshire. No one could point out what was especially local or Wyomingesque about their standards and tests.

I agree with your concern for democracy in our society. I don’t think the problem is uniquely limited to what happens in schools. The changes in the mass media have made all of us feel like spectators and consumers of other people’s decisions. This requires another discussion.


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