Diane Ravitch

An overemphasis on standardized tests feeds a false narrative about failing public schools, and that leaves room for ineffective privatization and breaking up of neighborhood schools, according to Diane Ravitch, a former assistant secretary of education.

Ravitch spoke to a crowd of educators, civic leaders, academics and students Thursday night at Baylor University.

Texas education officials have done some things right, including avoiding Common Core State Standards, Ravitch said.

But the country’s system of attaching school and teacher ratings to student test scores originated in this state, she said. President George W. Bush brought standardized testing to the country with No Child Left Behind, and President Barack Obama amplified the ideas of that program when he introduced Race to the Top.

“Race to the Top is No Child Left Behind on steroids,” Ravitch said. “NCLB punished schools. Race to the Top punishes both schools and teachers.”

Both place standardized test scores as the ultimate metric of educational success, but education is responsible for much more than test preparation, Ravitch said. A full education should inspire creativity and imagination and instill the courage needed to succeed and to advance the nation, she said.

Despite lagging behind other countries on international tests, which the United States has done since such tests first were administered decades ago, America has outperformed other nations economically, creatively and by many other practical measures, Ravitch said.

“The test scores of 15-year-olds indicate nothing about the future performance of our country, nothing at all,” Ravitch said.

Beyond education’s broad roles, teachers influence only a small part of students’ ability to perform well on tests, she said.

Poverty and affluence are the ultimate predictors of students’ success on standardized tests, not their teachers’ ability, Ravitch said.

‘Family wealth index’

“Standardized tests have been called a family wealth index,” she said.

Solutions to poverty are the ultimate educational solutions, Ravitch said.

As schools have failed to live up to the standards set out by federal and state programs, many have been closed.

Private companies have stepped in to offer charter schools as replacements to public schools, but there is no evidence to suggest these schools are any more effective at educating children, Ravitch said.

In some cases, these schools’ CEOs and managers earn multimillion-dollar salaries. Ravitch listed several examples, including Chicago’s publicly funded charter system of schools, which have failed to bring the improvements desired when they replaced many of the city’s public schools.

Despite the overemphasis on testing — which is largely motivated by profit, not improving education — there is a need to evaluate educational outcomes, Ravitch said.

There are some examples of effective evaluation, including one based on peer mentor programs and supervisor reviews, she said.

No education professional would argue that systems to evaluate school effectiveness should be done away with, said Douglas Rogers, an associate curriculum and instruction professor at Baylor. The push now is for a less onerous system than the testing model, he said.

“It represents a very small slice of the total educational experience,” Rogers said. “One of the things that has been talked about is more portfolio-type assessments.”

With a portfolio assessment, educators would sit down with students and guardians to review their educational portfolios.

That would offer a more complete image of a student’s education, Rogers said.

The test model is more like using one picture to evaluate an entire year of experiences, he said.

There also has been push- back against standardized testing by parents in recent years, rather than an acceptance of privatization, Ravitch said.

Boycotting tests

In the state of New York, which adopted Common Core standards and tests, 5 percent of students refused to take standardized tests in 2014. This year, that climbed to 20 percent of students refusing, Ravitch said.

Locally, that push has not been as strong.

Just two students opted out of last spring’s round of State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness tests in Midway Independent School District schools, and just five Waco Independent School District students opted out, according to officials at those districts.

Tests in Texas are tied to grade advancement for some ages, and students are marked absent for missing test days. Texas law also requires a school to give a test to any student at school, which then is scored regardless of whether the student answers any questions.

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