Ravitch Writes Powerful Critique of NCLB

K-12 Testing

FairTest Examiner, May 2010

Professor Diane Ravitch’s new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, is compelling reading for those on any side of the debates over testing, accountability and charter schools. Her lucid and balanced examination of the accumulated evidence that changed her views from a strong supporter of No Child Left Behind to a forceful opponent is a valuable addition to the work of such writers as Richard Rothstein, David Berliner, and Daniel Koretz. For a variety of reasons, these ideas are even more valuable coming from this author.

Because of who she is (a prominent education historian and author), where she’s worked (the U.S. Department of Education under President George H.W. Bush) and what she has espoused over the years (the value of test-based accountability and choice), Ravitch is drawing a tremendous amount of attention to ideas FairTest and others have been espousing for decades. Ravitch herself told FairTest staff that if anyone had said five years ago she’d be having coffee and sharing ideas with FairTest, she would not have believed it. 

Ravitch suggests that reforming ESEA/NCLB is critical for more than our schools, it’s critical for our democracy. “When we define what matters in education only by what we can measure, we are in serious trouble,” she writes. “When that happens, we tend to forget that schools are responsible for shaping character, developing sound minds in healthy bodies and forming citizens for our democracy."

The book’s central chapter on NCLB describes, with exceptional clarity, the law’s flawed assumptions and failed prescriptions. She appropriately lambastes the goal of 100% proficiency, quoting her conservative friends Chester Finn and Frederick Hess saying the goal is “comparable to Congress declaring that every last molecule of water or air pollution would vanish by 2014.” The important difference, she writes, is that “If pollution does not utterly vanish….no public official will be punished.” The chapter concludes, “Good education cannot be achieved by a strategy of testing children, shaming educators, and closing schools.” Indeed.

In a more perfect world, the chapter “What Would Mrs. Ratliff  Do?” about Ravitch’s beloved high school English teacher, would be required reading for Secretary Duncan and every editorial writer in the nation. Ravitch concludes that Mrs. Ratliff would have been stifled and dismayed by today’s “data-driven” education environment. As for Duncan and his corporate, political and editorial backers, it’s hard to imagine that they could read and absorb her careful dissection of the research on value-added measures and basing teacher evaluations on test scores and not understand the fatal flaws of these policy proposals.

This is a critical time for the future of public education, as Congress takes on the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (of which NCLB is the current version). And that is why, especially now, FairTest welcomes Prof. Ravitch as a most valuable, eloquent ally on combating the overuse and misuse of tests and misbegotten “accountability.” We share her hope that, “In view of the money and power now arrayed on behalf of the ideas and programs that I will criticize…it is not too late.”