Ravitch worked from 1991 to 1993 as assistant secretary in charge of research and improvement in the Education Department of President George H.W. Bush, and she served as counselor to then-Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, who had just left the Senate where he had served as chairman of the Senate Education Committee. She was at the White House as part of a select group when George W. Bush first outlined No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a moment that at the time she said made her “excited and optimistic” about the future of public education.
But her opinion changed as NCLB was implemented and she researched its effects on teaching and learning. She found that the NCLB mandate for schools to give high-stakes annual standardized tests in math and English language arts led to reduced time — or outright elimination — of classes in science, social studies, the arts and other subjects.
She was a critic of President Barack Obama’s policies and his chief education initiative, Race to the Top, a multibillion-dollar competition in which states (and later districts) could win federal funds by promising to adopt controversial overhauls, including the Common Core State Standards, charter schools and accountability that evaluated teachers by student test scores.
In 2013, she co-founded an advocacy group called the Network for Public Education, a coalition of organizations that oppose privatizing public education and high-stakes standardized testing. She has since then written several other best-selling books and a popular blog focused primarily on education.
In the following post, she provides a historical overview of standardized testing — and takes issue with supporters who say that these exams provide data that helps teachers and students. Instead, she says, they are have no value in the classroom.
The subject has resonance at the moment because the Biden administration must decide soon whether to give states a waiver from the federal annual testing mandate. The Trump administration did so last year after schools abruptly closed when the coronavirus pandemic took hold in the United States, but said it wouldn’t do it again if President Donald Trump won reelection. Trump lost, and now Biden’s Education Department is under increasing pressure to give states permission not to administer the 2021 tests.
By Diane Ravitch
I have been writing about standardized tests for more than 20 years. My 2000 book, “Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform,” included a history of I.Q. testing, which evolved into the standardized tests used in schools and into the Scholastic Aptitude Test, known now simply as the SAT. The psychologists who designed these tests in the early 20th century believed, incorrectly, that you inherited “intelligence” from your family and nothing you might do would change it. The chief virtue of these tests was that they were “standardized,” meaning that everyone took the same ones. The I.Q. test was applied to the screening of recruits for World War I, used to separate the men of high intellect — officer material — and from those of low intellect, who were sent to the front lines.
When the psychologists reviewed the test results, they concluded that white males of northern European origin had the highest I.Q., while non-English-speaking people and Black people had the lowest I.Q. They neglected the fact that northern Black people had higher I.Q. scores than Appalachian White people on the Army’s mental tests. Based on these tests, the psychologists believed, incorrectly, that race and I.Q. were bound together.
One of the psychologists who helped create the wartime I.Q. tests was Carl C. Brigham of Princeton University. He wrote an influential book, called “A Study of American Intelligence,” in 1923, which proclaimed that the “Nordic” race had the highest intelligence and that the increasing numbers of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe were causing a decline in American intelligence.
His findings encouraged Congress to set quotas to limit the immigration of so-called “inferior” national groups from places like Russia, Poland and Italy. Brigham, a faculty member at Princeton, used his knowledge of I.Q. testing to develop the Scholastic Aptitude Test in 1926. Because they could be easily and cheaply scored by machine, the SAT tests eventually replaced the well-known “College Boards,” which were written examinations prepared and graded by teams of high school teachers and college professors.
Standardized testing occasionally made an appearance in American schools in the second half of the 20th century, but the tests were selected and used at the will of state and local school boards. The Scholastic Aptitude Test was important for college admission, especially for the relatively small number of elite colleges. Nonetheless, it was possible to attend an American public school from kindergarten through 12th grade without ever taking a standardized test of academic or mental ability.
This state of affairs began to change after the release of the Reagan administration’s “Nation at Risk” report in 1983. That report claimed that the nation’s public schools were mired in “a rising tide of mediocrity” because they were too easy. Politicians and education leaders became convinced that American education needed higher standards and needed tests to measure the performance of students on higher standards.
President George H.W. Bush convened a national summit of governors in 1989, which proclaimed six national goals for the year 2000 in education, including:
- By the year 2000, United States students will be first in the world in math and science.
- By the year 2000, all students will leave grades 4, 8, and 12 having demonstrated competence over challenging subject matter including English, mathematics, science, foreign languages, civics and government, economics, arts, history and geography.
Such goals implied measurement. They implied the introduction of widespread standardized testing.
In 1994, President Bill Clinton introduced his Goals 2000 program, which gave grants to every state to choose their own standards and tests.
In 2001, President George W. Bush put forward his No Child Left Behind legislation, which required every student in grades 3 to 8 to take a standardized test in reading and mathematics every year, as well as one test in high school. Test scores would be used to judge schools and eventually to punish those that failed to make progress toward having every student achieve competency on those tests. The NCLB law proclaimed that by 2014, virtually every student would achieve competency in reading and mathematics. The authors of NCLB knew the goal was impossible to achieve.
When Barack Obama became president, he selected Arne Duncan as secretary of education. The Obama administration embraced the NCLB regime. Its own program — Race to the Top — stiffened the sanctions of NCLB.
Not only would schools that did not get high enough test scores be punished, possibly closed or privatized for failing to meet utopian goals, but teachers would be individually singled out if the students in their classes did not get higher scores every year.
The Bush-Obama approach was recognized as the “bipartisan consensus” in education, built around annual testing, accountability for students, teachers, principals and schools, and competition among schools. Race to the Top encouraged states to authorize charter school legislation and to increase the number of privately managed charters, and to pass legislation that tied teachers’ evaluations to the test scores of their students.
Duncan also promoted the Common Core State Standards, which were underwritten by philanthropist Bill Gates; the U.S. Department of Education could not mandate the Common Core, but it required states to adopt “common national standards” if they wanted to be eligible to compete for a share of the $4.35 billion in federal funding that the department controlled as part of the recovery funds after the Great Recession of 2008-09.
The department was able to subsidize the development of two new national tests aligned to the Common Core, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). At the outset — in 2010 — almost every state signed up for one of the two testing consortia. PARCC had 24 state members; it is now down to two and the District of Columbia. SBAC started with 30 state members; it is down to 17.
Politicians and the general public assume that tests are good because they provide valuable information. They think that the tests are necessary for equity among racial and ethnic groups.
The tests are a measure, not a remedy.
The tests are administered to students annually in March and early April. Teachers are usually not allowed to see the questions. The test results are returned to the schools in August or September. The students have different teachers by then. Their new teachers see their students’ scores but they are not allowed to know which questions the students got right or wrong.
Thus, the teachers do not learn where the students need extra help or which lessons need to be reviewed.
All they receive is a score, so they learn where students ranked compared to one another and compared to students across the state and the nation.
This is of little value to teachers.
This would be like going to a doctor with a pain in your stomach. The doctor gives you a battery of tests and says she will have the results in six months. When the results are reported, the doctor tells you that you are in the 45th percentile compared to others with a similar pain, but she doesn’t prescribe any medication because the test doesn’t say what caused your pain or where it is situated.
The tests are a boon for the testing corporation. For teachers and students, they are worthless.
Standardized test scores are highly correlated with family income and education. The students from affluent families get the highest scores. Those from poor families get the lowest scores. This is the case on every standardized test, whether it is state, national, international, SAT, or ACT. Sometimes poor kids get high scores, and sometimes kids from wealthy families get low scores, but they are outliers. The standardized tests confer privilege on the already advantaged and stigmatize those who have the least. They are not and will never be, by their very nature, a means to advance equity.
In addition, standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. There will always be a bottom half and a top half. Achievement gaps will never close, because bell curves never close. That is their design. By contrast, anyone of legal age may get a driver’s license if they pass the required tests. Access to driver’s licenses are not based on a bell curve. If they were, about 35 to 40 percent of adults would never get a license to drive.
If you are a parent, you will learn nothing from your child’s test score. You don’t really care how he or she ranks compared to others of her age in the state or in another state. You want to know whether she is keeping up with her assignments, whether she participates in class, whether she understands the work, whether she is enthusiastic about school, how she gets along with her peers. The standardized tests won’t answer any of these questions.
So how can a parent find out what he or she wants to know? Ask your child’s teacher.
Who should write the tests? Teachers should write the tests, based on what they taught in class. They can get instant answers and know precisely what their students understood and what they did not understand. They can hold a conference with Johnny or Maria to go over what they missed in class and help them learn what they need to know.
But how will we know how we are doing as a city or a state or a nation? How will we know about achievement gaps and whether they are getting bigger or smaller?
All of that information is already available in the reports of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), plus much more. Scores are disaggregated by state, gender, race, disability status, poverty status, English-language proficiency, and much more. About 20 cities have volunteered to be assessed, and they get the same information.
As we approach the reauthorization of the Every Student Succeeds Act — the successor law to No Child Left Behind — it is important to know this history and this context. No high-performing nation in the world tests every students in grades 3 to 8 every year.
We can say with certainty that the No Child Left Behind program failed to meet its purpose of leaving no child behind.
We can say with certainty that the Race to the Top program did not succeed at raising the nation’s test scores “to the top.”
We can say with certainty that the Every Student Succeeds Act did not achieve its purpose of assuring that every student would succeed.
For the past 10 years, despite (or perhaps because of) this deluge of intrusive federal programs, scores on the NAEP have been flat. The federal laws and programs have come and gone and have had no impact on test scores, which was their purpose.
It is time to think differently. It is time to relax the heavy hand of federal regulation and to recall the original purposes of the 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act: to distribute funding to the neediest students and schools; to support the professional training of teachers; and to assure the civil rights of students.
The federal government should not mandate testing or tell schools how to “reform” themselves, because the federal government lacks the knowledge or know-how or experience to reform schools.
At this critical time, as we look beyond the terrible consequences of the pandemic, American schools face a severe teacher shortage. The federal government can help states raise funding to pay professional salaries to professional teachers. It can help pay for high-quality prekindergarten programs. It can underwrite the cost of meals for students and help pay for nurses in every school.
American education will improve when the federal government does what it does best and allows highly qualified teachers and well-resourced schools to do what they do best.