Outlook & Opinions

High-stakes testing

by Diane Ravitch

Kids in America's public schools have always faced penalties for performing poorly on tests. They might not advance to the next grade; they might miss the chance to get into a good college.

Thanks to the No Child Left Behind Act, however, if a school's standardized test scores don't go up every year, the school and its teachers also face dire consequences. The school may be privatized, or taken over by the state, or threatened with closure, like the high school in Central Falls, R.I., where this spring the entire 93-person staff was dismissed, effective at the end of the school year, without individual evaluations.

None of these sanctions has been shown to improve student performance. But high-stakes tests -- whether Virginia's Standards of Learning examination, the District's Comprehensive Assessment System or any other across the country -- have become the organizing principle for American education, to the detriment of real learning. It's time to get rid of the punishments we've attached to testing.

Unfortunately, the Obama administration is picking up where the Bush administration left off, endorsing the same retribution for schools with low test scores: Fire the teachers! Close the schools! Privatize them! Turn them into charters!

Some districts and states have even introduced bonuses and merit pay for teachers, in hopes of raising test scores. But incentives and sanctions produce cheating and gaming the system, not better education.

As early as the first grade, American schoolchildren are practicing test-taking skills, learning how to fill in the right bubble on reading and math exams. And teachers across the nation are demoralized, compelled to teach what is tested, nothing more.

This is not good education. Tests should be used for information and diagnosis, not punishment and sanctions.

Diane Ravitch, a historian of education and a former assistant secretary of education in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education."

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