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Another perspective

Another perspective

Diane Ravitch Interview with Diane Ravitch

The following is an interview we conducted with Diane Ravitch 1, a well-known expert on standards and assessment in education.




. Concept to Classroom: Where are there examples of good assessment of students meeting high academic standards?

Ravitch: Our nation has only recently embarked on the effort to establish good standards and assessments. At this point, it is too soon to point to a particular district or state and say, "That's it." The first necessity for this strategy is to establish clear, measurable, well-defined standards of learning, so that teachers know what they are expected to teach, and students know what they will be held accountable for. This is the strategy of the International Baccalaureate Program, for example, where there is a syllabus, and what is to be taught and learned are explicit. The next step is to develop tests that are based on the standards. This puts teachers in the role of "coach," helping students meet reasonable, external demands.

Texas has begun to see good results from this strategy (although many critics complain that the Texas TAAS test is not challenging enough). Even though TAAS is a basic-skills test, it has apparently had a salutary effect, especially for poor and minority students, who have made large progress on national tests in the past decade. Outside scholars attribute the gains of minority students in Texas to the accountability provisions of TAAS, with everyone well aware that TAAS is important, that it counts, and that students should prepare for it. It seems to have helped the weakest students the most.

. Concept to Classroom: What should all educators be learning?

Ravitch: All educators should have a solid academic background themselves. Unfortunately, the majority of teachers today have been trained in education schools, which put too little emphasis on the liberal arts and sciences. It will be near impossible to help students meet high standards unless their teachers can meet and far exceed those standards. That means that educators should prepare by having a strong education in math and science, history, literature, foreign languages, and the arts. It would be best if every teacher had a double academic major; but in current circumstances, it would be a huge improvement if every teacher had an academic major in any of the major disciplines.

. Concept to Classroom: More than a year ago, you pointed out some of the problems New York State's Regents were failing to address in their work on standards. How are they doing now?

Ravitch: I wrote an article last year complaining that the New York standards were so generic that teachers would not know how to prepare their students. They are still broad, generic, diffuse. The English language arts standards contain no literature that all students are expected to know. I think it would be far better if teachers and students were given a list of five to ten important core works -- speeches of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., poems of Emily Dickinson, etc. -- that might be on the state tests. The list might change periodically, but the idea is that there are some readings that all high-school graduates should be able to share. The social studies area is a mess: the standards are a huge laundry list that no one could possibly master, especially in global studies. Teachers have told me that they cannot prepare students to take a test on the history of every region and civilization. The state gets around this question by presenting generic questions, giving students documents or graphs to interpret -- essentially expecting that they have a bank of skills but not necessarily knowledge.

. Concept to Classroom: Do you support curriculum-based examinations?

Ravitch: There remains much work to be done to make this strategy effective. Some educators reject the strategy, saying that their students should not be expected to know anything in particular. I respect the right of private schools to opt out of state assessments; they are not, after all, part of the public system. But those who receive state funding do have an obligation to show that they have used the public's funding wisely and that their students have mastered the fundamental elements of reading, writing, mathematics, science, and history -- at a minimum.

There is much evidence, especially in the work of John Bishop, of Cornell, to show that a strategy of curriculum-based examinations promotes social and educational equity. Leaving every school and teacher to do their own thing promotes inequity among schools and children from different races and classes.

. Concept to Classroom: The classroom teacher faces voluminous standards documents and sometimes vague statements of standards. What specific steps should an individual classroom teacher be taking in terms of assessment?

Ravitch: Many state standards are vague and voluminous. In those states, teachers must look at past exams, to see whether the state is serious about standards. I have been told that in some states the exams are quite good, while the standards are not. This is a ridiculous situation, as the standards should function as a guide to the examinations.

Through their organizations, teachers should actively prod state officials to get their act together and make sure that the standards are good guidelines to what will be tested, so that teachers and students alike know what to expect.

Workshop: Assessment, Evaluation, and Curriculum Redesign
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