Diane Ravitch on School Performance and Standardized Testing

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

A ninth grade English teacher at Sacramento High School goes over techniques for answering standardized test questions in this photo from last May. A ninth grade English teacher at Sacramento High School goes over techniques for answering standardized test questions in this photo from last May. ((Ben Adler/WNYC))

Diane Ravitch, research professor of education at New York University, author of the "Bridging Differences" blog at Education Week and also author of  The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education, follows up on a discussion about school performance and the frustration some teachers feel about standardized testing.  

Comments [44]

David from Sunnyside

Great interview, Brian Lehrer. (And great job asking Michelle Rhee the tough questions last week.) I'm still wondering why WNYC's SchoolBook page has continued to post the Teacher Data Reports. Dare to take this on, Brian? Why, within WNYC and the NY Times, do reporters again and again point out the problems of the TDRs and the damaging effects of the over-emphasis on standardized testing, yet editorially, your organization continues to come down on the WRONG side of the issue?

Apr. 18 2012 07:44 PM
Vinny from Queens

I think the big picture is being overlooked. This is about union busting and further weakening the rights of workers. Now that private industry pensions are gone as well as most of their unions, the focus now is the removal of government unions, their pensions, their job security, their vacation days; etc.

Clearly our Mayor will not tackle the powerful Police or Fire unions so you start with a union whose majority are women. After the teacher's union is gone all other government union's such as DC 37 will easily be toppled.

The end result is the death of middle class.

Apr. 18 2012 10:46 AM
Jonathan from Bronx

Scheduling of state tests in New York City with the ELA test beginning one day after students return from more than a week of vacation does not appear to be in the students' best interest. Could Mayor Bloomberg have alterior motives? If more students do poorly on the tests as a result of being out of the classroom for more than a week, teachers and schools will be blamed, the mayor will attempt to close more schools due to their failure to meet adequate yearly progress, and more teachers will lose their jobs, only to be replaced by new teachers with lower salaries. This political game that the mayor is playing with the lives of students and educators must stop. I hope that the Brian Lehrer Show will begin to cover this story so that the public can get all the facts before teachers and schools get all the blame.

Apr. 18 2012 07:33 AM

Diane Ravitch is right on the money! Threatening teachers while increasing class size is going to lead to disaster. Who would want to be a teacher now? Who would like to be held accountable for other peoples' lack of effort or poverty? What a joke this new "reform" is. This won't last. It will be a major fail, and the billionaires will have to go back to insider trading and leave education alone.

Apr. 17 2012 11:32 PM
Eugenia Renskoff from Brooklyn, NY

Hi, I enjoy your segments on education. I was very lucky. As a child, nobody had to tell me to read a book. I just did it on my own. I know that many kids are not like that and they need encouragement. We all need to know more, do better, be the best we can be. Eugenia Renskoff

Apr. 17 2012 03:36 PM
John from long island

suzanne from manhattan, Who is addressing the effect of changing demographics on school performance? There are great risks to fine teachers if you simply implement standardise testing scores as a major point of teacher eval. you know how difficult teaching is via your family background. the risk of using test results as a teacher evaluation tool is that you may wind up dismissing some fine teachers who arent getting "improving" test results. there is an example of a teacher at a school, styvesant perhaps, whose class scores havent improved over a period of years. well, her kids are aceing the tests, she is surely doing her job. It was reported that she would be a teacher at risk of losing her job under the new plans because her students werent showing improvement year over year. How does that make sense. you write that educating your child is your highest priority. Same here. However, that most surely is not true in many familys of the students from the low performing schools. you write .."We need changes, profound changes in our schools. We don't quite yet know what will work. What I find inexcusable, though, are teachers' representatives and others with a political agenda who like your guest today are just saying no to change without coming up with their own ideas to fix the system in the administration and school buildings and in the classroom" ...I posture that the problem with the decline in education, no matter how you measure it, does not primarily lie for the most part with the quality or attitude of the teachers, or problems with "the system in the administration and school buildings and in the classroom". I propose that the reason for the continuous decline, especially in the lower performing schools is due primarilly to the decline of the family unit, and the priority placed on education by the parents (or parent). I propose that the parents are ever less engaged in their childrens education. this can be due to neglect, or due to the parents ( 1or 2) working harder to get by. when a single mother is working to keep food on the table, it is easy to let juniors education slip thru the cracks. not to mention a host of other reasons parents have become more disengaged with their childrens education. My own child dodges homework via any means possible. We have to monitor him to see that his work is getting done. And,he is a Good Boy, and a bright student. yet it is his nature to slack off. without our intervention, his work and grades would suffer. would that be his teachers fault? no. it would be a reflection of the dynamics of his home. No one is addressing this point. It is Politically dicey. Who is addressing the effect of changing demographics on school performance? p.s. teachers and administrators cant change what happens in the home.

Apr. 17 2012 12:48 PM
Randi from Brooklyn

"If the home and the community doesn't value and respect education, intellectual achievement, no amount of spending on schools will produce competent and capable graduates."

Edward, I couldn't agree more. The schools always had good and bad teachers, but students who come to school disciplined and prepared will always do well no matter how good or bad a teacher is.

The reason why the schools failed was because home life and community life declined. The schools are just a reflection of the environment in which they exist.

Apr. 17 2012 12:03 PM
Mary from Brooklyn

Brian, this is the second time I have heard Diane on your show, and I am surprised by the pass you gave her. You otherwise probe and challenge guests and there would have been so many ways to challenge her positions--the most obvious being asking her to propose a solution to evaluating kids and teachers or propose a solution for addressing the grossly negligent education that too many kids face. She never has done this and giving her a platform to criticize accountability and reform is a disservice to the larger discussion. I would hope that should you have her on in the future you will treat her fairly but with the same demanding questions you pose to other guests.

Apr. 17 2012 11:59 AM
Edward from Washington Heights AKA pretentious Hudson Heights

Teaching and Learning go on outside of school - in the home and the community.

If the home and the community doesn't value and respect education, intellectual achievement, no amount of spending on schools will produce competent and capable graduates.

In the last presidential election cycle, I remember hearing Bob Sheiffer of CBS tell the candidates that the US spends the most on education yet ithe US ranks 29th in the world in competent students.

Apr. 17 2012 11:48 AM
suzanne from Manhattan

Brian I come from a family of teachers, educating my own child was my highest priority andl I think that our terrible public schools when assessed by their failure to teach and inspire low income children is our biggest problem as a nation. Yes, using standardized tests as designed and interpreted today is like using a blunt instrument to fix problems that need a great many interventions and new research and techniques to solve. But we need teacher assessment. We need changes, profound changes in our schools. We don't quite yet know what will work. What I find inexcusable, though, are teachers' representatives and others with a political agenda who like your guest today are just saying no to change without coming up with their own ideas to fix the system in the administration and school buildings and in the classroom. Please don't use your valuable program any longer to put on just the naysayer proponents of the status quo. The status quo is indefensible.

Apr. 17 2012 11:43 AM

Well, now that we've plumbed the depths of public satisfaction with the results and practices and institutions of State mandated and State run education, let's all go over to the "New York's Health Exchanges" thread and build us an equally satisfying healthcare insurance system. Women and children first. - Usually a phrase meant to comfort, until you realize what usually happens to women and children who find themselves in physical and social disaster zones.

Apr. 17 2012 11:42 AM

Education is fundamentally a national security issue on par or exceeding the military.

In 2012, we will spend 902.2 BILLION (that's almost 1 TRILLION) on the military. Compare this with the 153.1 billion we will spend on education.

We spend more on the military than ALL the rest of the WORLD COMBINED!

Now, this is terrific, if someone could please explain to me what we have gotten for that money in Iraq... Afghanistan???

Over 10 years in Afghanistan and countless dead innocents, has this been "worth" it??


Apr. 17 2012 11:42 AM
john from long Island

Jeane from Fin.Dist., teachers last in the profession @ 5 years. Surprised? It is a hard job, much more than meets the eye. my wife works nights and weekends, and stresses about her students. She has to manage relationships with kids, parents and administrators.

Apr. 17 2012 11:40 AM
vlad from Central New Jersey

Social Mobility is being hindered by "Poverty".

Very true. And, "education" is one way to move out of it.. but, the major problem in trying to educate children that live in "poverty" is that in most cases, they cannot "be educated" no matter how hard the teacher tries is because the live in an environment that does not support the education and knowledge the teacher and the school is trying to impart on the student... One solution, is to "remove" the child from the negative environment in which they live... and yes... that means spending money.. but, it would be money "well spent" .. as opposed to how money is being currently spent.

Apr. 17 2012 11:39 AM
Jeff William Nichols from Manhattan

The caller Seth demonstrates the central problem with our current education policies in NYC. Excessive testing pushes teachers and students in exactly the wrong direction; it treats low-income families as though their children are too dumb to get excited by ideas, so the city takes away subjects that might appeal to their imaginations, like the arts, and instead beating them over the head with test prep in the hope that they will become literate and numerate enough that they won’t be a drain on society when they grow up. The result is good teachers like Seth are demoralized and potentially good students get alienated from school by the rigid and unimaginative curriculum.

Apr. 17 2012 11:36 AM
Kelly from Brooklyn

Ms. Ravitch is mistaken on many fronts with respect to charter schools.

First, though not all charter schools are excellent, if they fail, they will be shut down and reopened. This is a major advantage vs. traditional public schools which historically have lingered in failure indefinitely. Which is in my opinion criminal. Traditional lousy schools are basically forgotten, become repositories for bad teachers with no place else to go, and cheat students in that community from there right to a good education.

Second, successful charter schools provide examples for both charter schools and other public schools for how to design a successful model, which are made very transparent and observable given the extreme scrutiny that is applied to governing those schools.

Third, to say that 'most' charter schools are supported by hedge funds etc. is at best misleading and I believe false. Most charter schools are run almost if not entirely on the public dollar. The dollars from private donors are sometimes used to support 'start up costs' before a school has full k-8 etc. enrollment to support the overhead, or to fund facilities space, which is not provided for in the charter public funding formula. Of course there are examples to the contrary, but they are the exception, not the rule.

Apr. 17 2012 11:32 AM
jgarbuz from Queens

Most of what I have heard is BALONEY! The truth is, teachers were stripped of all power and respect many decades ago! You go alone into a class of 25 or more little animals, and without the power to discipline in a meaningful way, you have to "charm" the little creatures or they will tear you apart. And you as the teacher are responsible for EVERYTHING they do, or don't do, and anything that happens to them.

There'll be no meaningless improvements until well qualified teachers get both respect and power back, as was the case back in pre-1960s liberal era.

Apr. 17 2012 11:32 AM
Mabel from Harlem USA

Please, please address the issue that testing is a multi-billion dollar industry. Who owns and runs this industry? Who makes a profit from tax dollars - its a gift that keeps giving for one sector of the upper eschelons.

Apr. 17 2012 11:32 AM

The best way to reduce children in poverty is to NOT born children into poverty.

Apr. 17 2012 11:30 AM
Judy from NYC

Everyone argues in vague generalities, it seems to me.Completely left out of the discussion is that the math and reading programs used do not focus on skills, sometimes even disallow teaching skills, and do not teach to mastery, so kids who aren't backed up at home almost never develop strong skills. The test preps, then, are used to teach skills which is not the best way to do it and doesn't really solve the problem.

Apr. 17 2012 11:30 AM
John from long island

Your guest is spot on. My wife is a teacher, and we have continuing conversations about testing. Teaching to the test does a disservice to the children, and doesnt properly provide for the opportunity of creative teachers to "do their thing" in terms of reaching the students in creative ways! Additionaly, judging teachers buy test results is inherently not an adequate measure of in class performance. Thanks Brian for the continuing conversations @ these topics.

Apr. 17 2012 11:29 AM
Jennifer from Brooklyn

What Bloomberg and the DOE don't seem to understand is that teachers use assessments all the time to make decisions about what we teach and how we will move our students along. We observe our students, we talk to them, we review their work. We use a variety of assessment tools both formal (reading assessments, ie) and informal (discussions, work) to make our decisions. As a teacher, I find the standardized test to be highly unhelpful. They tell me nothing I don't already know, other than whether or not a student is a good test taker.

BTW- I'm at home on a maternity leave, lest anyone thinks I'm one of those " ineffective teacher."

Apr. 17 2012 11:29 AM
Karen from Brooklyn

I've taught global studies, which is a reading and writing intensive course, for a number of years in an underperforming high school where students are required to pass Regents exam in my subject are and others to graduate. Because students enter with such severe academic deficits,in my experience it has been necessary to teach the basics in order for kids to perform at a higher level. I think that kids with underdeveloped skills should be given a Regents-free freshman year where students have an intensive remedial curriculum across subject ares that should be engaging but one that focuses on fundamental skills so that they have a chance to not just pass the regents, but excell in the higher grades.

Apr. 17 2012 11:27 AM
Jennifer from Brooklyn

What Bloomberg and the DOE don't seem to understand is that teachers use assessments all the time to make decisions about what we teach and how we will move our students along. We observe our students, we talk to them, we review their work. We use a variety of assessment tools both formal (reading assessments, ie) and informal (discussions, work) to make our decisions. As a teacher, I find the standardized test to be highly unhelpful. They tell me nothing I don't already know, other than whether or not a student is a good test taker.

BTW- I'm at home on a maternity leave, lest anyone thinks I'm one of those " ineffective teacher."

Apr. 17 2012 11:27 AM
Brian from Hoboken

Since when is a test a dirty word? How do we measure students across the board vs other students? There needs to be some standardization.
I am not familiar with NY tests- are these every year? The guest mentioned the importance of the 4th grade test. If students need to take a standardized test every couple years, what's the harm? I took the "Iowa's" a couple times goin through elementary and middle school. This argument sounds the same as the curving that ocurred with the SAT years ago right after I took it. All of a sudden, many low scores curved up as even higher scores went up a bit. Why? For kids' "self worth"?
Education in the US needs to change but you can not entirely eliminate tests.
Lastly, the guest makes it sound like every teacher is on the cusp of being fired. I seem to remember that it was difficult to fire even the teachers recently accused of sexual misconduct. Puh-lease. Most of te poor teachers sit in the rubber room and still collect their paychecks.

Apr. 17 2012 11:27 AM
Amanda from Brooklyn

I agree with every word that your guest is saying. i was a teacher in the NYC teaching fellows program and worked in a school in Clinton Hill where I was required to spend a whole hour on test prep every day. I currently live in District 17 in Brooklyn and am a mothet of 2. District 17 is a district where the schools leave a great deal to be desired. I understand, and generally support, all of the arguments against Charter Schools and I do think theyt can seriously undermine the traditional public school system. However, as a parent who cannot afford private school, Charter Schools, where there at least appears to be an effort to come up with innovative curriculum and to focus on something other than test-taking skills, become an appealing option. I have been so fortunate to find the New American Academy in Brooklyn. it is an empowered school with an amazing, innovative curriculum, where the founder of the school has completely re-thought the traditional school structure, and managed to do this within the city system. I am thrilled to have enrolled my son to start kindergarten there in the Fall.

Apr. 17 2012 11:25 AM
Kelly from Brooklyn

Hi - I serve on a board of a Charter School and feel very committed to the use of assessment tools to gauge student progress.

I think the problem, with all due respect to Ms. Ravitch who is an enormously well regarded educator, is that we need to have some system of accountability for poorly performing schools. Standardized testing is not a panacea, and has certain limitations and pitfalls in terms of implementation that need to be dealt with. They should not be used as an exclusive measure of achievement and no one in the New York environment supporting their use is arguing that standardized tests should be the only method of assessment. But we do need to know if a school is not able to support students in achieving the minimum passing levels on these exams. To pass the test, students need to be simply proficient - we are talking in the 70-80% scoring range. If kids can't pass these tests, we can say there is a real problem at the school. Many of the struggling schools are not hitting 35%-40% passing rates on these tests. We need to know that. I'd rather us come up with ways to prevent the cheating and other issues that arise with testing than eliminate the use of testing.

I would ask Ms. Ravitch - and let's try to make it very specific. Imagine a school which manages to get 35%-40% passing rates on the standardized tests. If the tests are not in use in this specific school, what other method would you use to assess whether or not the culture, teaching, and learning at the school give kids the chance they deserve?

Apr. 17 2012 11:24 AM

I posted on the Rhee thread about having chosen to teach performing arts in an independent school over teaching in public school. I think doing Shakespeare is exactly the kind of experience that extends and adds value to the education of students who are struggling. The rote test prep turns brains OFF and shuts off the avenues of opportunity, expression and creativity that foster deeper understanding and LEARNING.

Apr. 17 2012 11:24 AM
Edward from NJ

Another great follow-up: What if the schools aren't actually failing?

Apr. 17 2012 11:23 AM
Amy from Westchester

I think testing skills can be integrated into any content area. The testing culture is too much for kids and teachers. I think that a stronger commitment need to be made for high quality public education for all children. I always tried to work with in the system but add creativity and interesting content in my classroom.

Apr. 17 2012 11:23 AM
Bexie from NYC

When is someone going to start talking about how the perspectives of both of these camps as represented by Diane Ravitch and Michelle Rhee are both accurate AND incomplete WITHOUT each other!!!!When they stop fighting each other and join each other in recognition of how they each hold one piece of a puzzle that must go together to actually reach the children, we will start to see results for our kids. As we all spin around picking and choosing sides, thereby diminishing our ability to support children who need it most while we fight adult battles, the reality is that TEACHER QUALITY MATTERS IMMENSELY AND ADDRESSING POVERTY AND COMMUNITY CONTEXT MATTERS IMMENSELY. Teachers must be supported AND held accountable, and most importantly the reform camp must recognize that it is only by focusing on the learning and growth of the adults that the learning and growth of students is realized. "Children/students First" as a theme of the reform camp is understandable given the union's intractable grip on allowing the small percentage of teachers who pollute the professionalization of the field to continue- that said, when our mantra becomes ADULT LEARNING AND STUDENT LEARNING we will realize progress we can only dream of from our current vantage point.
-Former NYC Principal and Teacher

Apr. 17 2012 11:23 AM
Katherine Jackson from LES

Diane Ravitch, you are a total hero! Bravo! The stories I hear from friends who teach in "inner city" schools confirm everything you've been saying. We need a country of people -- wherever they start out in life -- who can THINK! Who can respond creatively to challenges. Fear is not a useful mechanism in any kind of education worth its name.

Apr. 17 2012 11:23 AM
jeff plum from brooklyn

And Diane's solution for educating and assessing kids in challenged schools is..............still waiting

Apr. 17 2012 11:22 AM
Marc from Brooklyn

This . . . . individual makes me laugh. Not only did I attend NYC public schools from kindergarden through baccalaureate (PS 86 & 123K, JHS 162K, Bronx Science, Baruch College) but my step-father has been a DoE teacher, since c1974. I've seen more sloth, more excuse-making, more nonsense, more abject failure from NYC's public school system than in any other professional setting with which I've been associated. I've seen teachers raise funds for the communist party -- on school grounds, on school time. I've seen the UFT foot the bill to keep an admitted pedophile on the payroll -- for better than six years, right through the US Court of Appeals. I've seen teachers REPEATEDLY engaged with students sexually and no discipline came of it. I've seen countless patently incompetent teachers in classrooms, grinding away towards their pension, while their students languished. So whatever the UFT's criticisms of Bloomberg, they're meaningless, since the UFT pretty much had their way from 1975 through at least 2001, and they produced not one iota of substantive improvement in student performance. What the UFT is advocating is a return to the Albert Schanker paradigm, of political blackmail, studentds be damned. The needs of the students didn't rate back then, and if the UFT gets its way, they wont rate now.

By the way, Ms Ravitch, one does not modify a modifier (a word ending in "er") with "more." It makes you sound as if you're not qualified to teach.

One ripped off student

Apr. 17 2012 11:22 AM
sadie from manhattan

I am a parent with 2 kids taking tests today and at our school, the motto is "the best test prep is learning to read critically, write well, and compute efficiently." I am happy to have my kids tested and as a tax payer, I want to know that the system is providing at leas the minimum required to function in this world. I would like to know what the alternative to standardized tests are for gauging kids performance. Also, please be clear that NYS tests are not all scan tron tests--they involve humans (teachers) grading tests not just based on a bubble sheet.

Apr. 17 2012 11:18 AM

Diane Ravitch has just nailed the real test of the Rhees and Bloombergs and Kleins — not one of them would dream of putting their kids through the programs they champion for New York City public schools.

The pedagogy of poverty -- a perfect name for a scheme to produce obedient workers. This point was made twenty some years ago by Barbara Ehrenreich. At the time, corporate execs and politicians were waving their hands over students not being sufficiently good in technical or advanced areas — math, science. When Ehrenreich interviewed these execs and asked how they would choose between creative thinkers or obedient ones, the execs overwhelmingly opted for obedient workers.

This is the real mission behind the educational tyranny of Bloomberg, Klein, Rhee, Duncan — and Obama — generate obedient workers. The last thing they want is a body of well-educated, creative people who might challenge their slavish championing or Wall Street, of redistribution from poor to rich, of ever-greater crackdowns on civil liberties.

Apr. 17 2012 11:17 AM
MichaelB from Morningside Heights

I have no idea of how the schools differ between high-performing schools and low-performing (and Ms. Ravitch is citing some ugly examples now), but isn't having different programs for kids with different needs -- at different levels -- the answer to "one-size fits all"?

Apr. 17 2012 11:15 AM
Beatrice from Manhattan

My child attends NEST+m, one of the citywide gifted & talented schools, and they have spent three months on test prep while the rest of the curriculum has been put on the back burner. It's not just schools with struggling students who push test prep. With scores influencing school rating, teacher evaluations, and ultimately, the money that the schools receive, it's all about how to get the top score possible. The anxiety that this is producing in the kids is out of control.

Apr. 17 2012 11:15 AM
Vern from Harlem

I'm curious about what Dr. Ravitch thinks the impact of the Common Core will have on teaching and learning. My daughter who is in Universal Pre-K is already being exposed to it; she has fabulous teachers in an idyllic environment. But I've met a lot of parents on playgrounds where other pre-k programs are being stressed by the emerging Core.

Pre-k is becoming the new first grade.

Apr. 17 2012 11:14 AM
amanda from manhattan

UGH. This is so frustrating. Diane is great at criticism, but please ask her how she would like to ensure that kids are actually learning something. Poor schools have been awful for so many years under the regime of the establishment. So we know that does not work. So what is her solution? To criticize any effort at reform, but to never step out and propose a change to the failing system.

Apr. 17 2012 11:14 AM
Jean from Financial District

Are there any data regarding the rate of teachers quitting? I am not terribly sure when this testing "regime" started, but it would be interesting to see some facts about how many teachers have left the school system in the past decade.

Apr. 17 2012 11:13 AM

It was the relentless teach-to-the-test mandated by the State that long ago pushed us out of the whole system into Waldorf Education where intellectual curiosity, and creativity are valued. Never looked back.

Apr. 17 2012 11:13 AM

I don't understand why Ms Rhee is getting involved in local NYC education politics. Especially since her effort involves fund raising to affect a political change, I think her methods are despicable, regardless of her motives.

Apr. 17 2012 11:10 AM
Vicki from Forest Hills, NY

Please ask Ms. Ravitch thinks of a) "Kindergarten is the new first grade" and b) the Bloomberg administration elimination of school libraries and weekly book check-out.

Apr. 17 2012 11:02 AM

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