Assessment Opinion

What Good are Tests?

By Diane Ravitch — June 04, 2008 2 min read
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Dear Deborah,

Tests inevitably gauge a student’s fund of knowledge and experience, not just what was taught in school. If a student comes from a family where he or she hears a large vocabulary, where there are many books in the home, where reading and learning are valued, where there are excursions to the library or the museum, the tests will reflect that huge amount of social capital.

Tests of math and science are more likely to reflect what was taught in school because most students learn those subjects almost entirely in school. The same is probably true, I suspect, for history tests. Most students are not likely to live in homes where the family talks about the causes of the Civil War or the meaning of the Bill of Rights or the role of immigration in American history.

I think it is reasonable for teachers to use tests to find out whether students have learned what they were taught. Teachers can learn a good bit from test results about how effective they were in teaching lessons and they can learn about the needs of specific students. I also think it is valuable for districts to know whether they are making progress towards their goals, so they can make corrections if they are not. The best uses of tests, I think, are to improve teaching and learning.

We are, as no one knows better than you, in a whole different era. Tests are now being used to reward and punish principals, teachers, and students. They are being used for purposes for which they have not been constructed or validated.

Like you, I am opposed to testing 5-year-olds for admission to a gifted program. It is not surprising that this is happening today in New York City because the school system is in the hands of non-educators who think that everything and everyone can be tested. They are first-class examples of the pernicious application of the term “data-driven decision-making.” They want to eliminate human judgment (too subjective!) and base all decisions on test scores.

Of course tests for 5-year-old children are unreliable! Experts on value-added assessment also say that changes in the test scores of students based on the changes from one test to another are unreliable. Yet the non-educators who run the NYC schools have been trying to use one-year changes to reward and punish teachers and principals.

There are big bonuses available for principals who get their school scores up. There are bonuses for teachers in certain schools if their scores go up. Some kids are being paid for higher scores. I assume the scores will indeed go up. I also assume that higher scores will not mean that any child is getting a better education. Chances are they are being test-prepped to a fare thee well. There may be other causes of rising scores. But no one can persuade me that higher scores produced solely by external punishment and reward equal good education.

The sad fact is, Deborah, that New York City’s public schools now have a leadership team that is clueless about what good education is and how to make it happen. NYC is the local version of NCLB. After five years in control of the city’s schools, it is clear that our leaders know nothing about education. Yet this district won the Broad Prize, which just goes to show how meaningless the Broad Prize is. As a few people in NYC said last fall, it was one billionaire giving a tip of his hat to another billionaire.

And I agree with you: The goal of 2014 in NCLB as the date when everyone must be proficient is impossible. I don’t think the date was set with malice. Just ignorance.


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