Diane Ravitch: standardized tests just rank kids by family income

Both international and domestic standardized tests do nothing more than “rank kids by their family income”, according to one of America’s fiercest critics of the school reform movement.

Richard Vaughan

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Diane Ravitch, who served under two US presidents and was once a chief proponent of the reform movement, claimed the liberal use of testing by individual states and internationally had “warped education”.

Ms Ravitch, who advised both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations in the 1990s, has become one of America’s most outspoken critics of the education reform movement.

And chief among her targets is the use of testing to hold teachers, schools, districts and, increasingly, entire countries to account for the quality of the education they offer.

“I don’t have much faith in the test. To attach high stakes that would wreck someone’s life and reputation – this is a very faulty measure. It’s not that good,” Ms Ravitch told TES in an interview.

“They are heavily affected by demography, so the kids from the most advantaged, high-income homes come out at the top and those from the least advantaged and lowest income are at the bottom,” she said. “So what you’re measuring is family income. The norm on all the standardized tests is they rank kids by family income. That’s simply the fact.”

High-stakes tests based on a 'lie'

Successive government’s have built upon the use of tests to inform policy and dictate where federal money goes, such as under the No Child Left Behind legislation of George W. Bush, and then later through Race To The Top under Barack Obama, who has recently tried to move away from the use of testing.

Ms Ravitch believes that these laws were based on a “lie”. “The lie was that high stakes testing and rewarding those that get high scores and punishing those that go low scores that this would somehow bring about this miraculous transformation,” she said. “That the test scores would go up, and poor kids would do as well as rich kids and it was all a lie. High stakes testing has really warped education.”  

Policymakers in countries all over the world, not least in the US, are being increasingly influenced by international tests such as the hugely influential Program for International Student Assessment (Pisa), run by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (Timss).

But Ms Ravitch believes the assessments offer an inaccurate picture of the health of a nation’s economic performance.

“The international scores that have been used to flog the US are way overstated, because the countries that do well in them are not always the best countries to live in and don’t even have the best economies,” she said.   

“The scores on, whether it’s Pisa or Timss, they do not predict the future of the economy,” she added. We have been hearing for well over 30 years that our economy is going to be in deep trouble because we don’t have high scores in international tests and it was never true. We never had high scores on international tests. And the truth with any standardized test, whether it’s domestic or international, if it’s standardized then its normed on a bell-curve.”

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Richard Vaughan

Richard has been writing about politics, policy and technology in education for nearly five years after joining TES in 2008. He joined TES from the building press having been a reporter and then later news editor at the Architects’ Journal. Before then he studied at Cardiff University’s school of journalism. Richard can be found tweeting at @richardvaughan1

Find me on Twitter @RichardVaughan1

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