Amanda Ripley

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Diane Ravitch’s Alternate Universe

10th Jul 2011 posted in Education

In today’s New York Times, Diane Ravitch responds to David Brooks and other critics by hoisting well-worn foreign flags.

“No high-performing nation tests its students every year or uses student test scores to evaluate teacher quality.”

This is a point Ravitch makes again and again. I usually just glide right by it, since it comes wedged between so many other questionable claims and also some valid points. But since I just got back from visiting these high-performing nations, I must note that Ravitch’s version of reality does not match what I saw.

Everywhere I went, testing was absolutely embedded in the system. It took different forms, and in some places it was done more intelligently and more subtly than we do it, but it was always there. In South Korea, kids are tested in elementary, middle and high school. How do I know? Teachers, principals, students and the Education Minister told me so. It was not a secret.

Just to be clear: Korean kids, who score at the top of the world in international tests, take standardized tests administered by the Korean government to measure what students know—and identify which students and schools need more help. Yes, they do!

And guess what? The results of these tests are used to evaluate principal and school quality. Yes, they are!

What about teachers? Teachers are evaluated, too, using criteria that do not currently include test data—but do include surveys of students, parents and other teachers about the effectiveness of the teacher. (And by the way, everywhere I went, I could find teachers and principal who complained about these evaluations, calling them unfair, just like teachers do here. It’s a small world after all.)

Now bear with me for a second: Ravitch is careful to use the caveat “every year.” And it’s true that Korean kids do not take standardized tests every year. Neither do American kids! Under federal law, our kids must be tested in grades 3-8 and at least once between 10th and 12th grade. That’s seven years out of 13. Is that too much? Probably. Should our tests be smarter? Definitely.

But to imply that tests are irrelevant in high-performing countries is misleading.

Even in Finland, which has the best schools in the world by multiple measures, tests are part of life. Are they annual, standardized tests, the results of which are made public? No, they are not, and teachers in Finland thank God for that. But make no mistake: the Finnish national government routinely and systematically tests samples of students around Finland to make sure that schools are meeting high standards.

And Finnish teachers told me that of course they test their students regularly—and they compare their students’ results with the results of their colleague’s students to see what they need to work on. Of course they do. Why wouldn’t they? You don’t get to be high-performing without actually performing.

In reality, Korean high-schoolers—and Finnish high schoolers—obsess over one test in particular far more than most American kids ever will. In both countries, kids graduating from upper secondary schools must take an all-important, standardized, end-of-the-year test before they graduate. So tests are not only present; they are truly high-stakes in a way that they are not in most U.S. schools (where most tests are only high-stakes for the people who work there.)

I believe in learning from high-performing nations. That’s why I am writing a book about it. In fact, I am convinced that these comparisons are a matter of economic and even moral urgency. And that’s why we have to do this work with great care and humility—as if we want our schools to be better more than we want to be right.