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Pass or Fail

The country's love affair with standardized testing and charter schools is ruining American education.

In my new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, I argue that the current movement to fix schools will not improve American education. In fact, it may very well harm it.

Today’s reformers--few of whom are educators--say that changes in incentives and sanctions and in the governance of schooling will lead to improved achievement. They believe that a stronger emphasis on testing and accountability and an expansion of privately managed charter schools will raise student performance. Because I had endorsed many of these ideas in the past, I had to admit upfront in the book that I was persuaded by accumulating evidence that these strategies are wrong, that I was wrong, and that American education is not likely to be improved by more testing, more accountability, and more choice. I have become fond of quoting John Maynard Keynes, who is said to have told a critic, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”

As I assayed the evidence about No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I concluded that it has failed. The testing regime that NCLB installed in every public school has not improved American education. By mandating that scores in reading and math must constantly rise, the federal law has removed any incentive to teach the arts, science, history, literature, foreign languages, geography, civics, or any other non-tested subject.

NCLB requires that all students must be proficient in reading and math by 2014. When the legislation was signed in 2002, this goal was wildly unrealistic--and now, it is merely laughable. The target date is only four years away, but no state is remotely close to 100 percent proficiency. Indeed, in 2008, 35,000 of the nation’s schools bore the stigma of "failing" because they weren't making sufficient progress toward that utopian target.

What NCLB has done with its proficiency deadline is set a timetable for the demolition of American public education. In an effort to meet NCLB’s unattainable goal and avoid the "failing" label, most states have dumbed down their standardized tests or their definitions of proficiency. Many states claim that large majorities of their students are “proficient” in reading or math, but their claims are refuted by federal assessments (called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP) that are given to all students in fourth and eighth grades every other year. For example, Texas reported that 85 percent of its students in those grades were proficient readers based on year-end state testing, but, on the NAEP, only 29 percent were. Nationwide, NAEP scores have gone up in math since 2003, but the rate of improvement has been less than before the passage of NCLB. In eighth-grade reading, there was no improvement at all from 1998 to 2007.

Accountability pressures have also led to widespread gaming of the system. Every so often, a cheating scandal is uncovered, but such scandals are minor compared to the ways in which states have manipulated the scoring of tests to produce inflated results. New York state education officials, for instance, made it easier to rate students as “proficient” by lowering the number of points that a student needed to earn on the state tests. In 2006, a seventh grader needed to get 59.6 percent on the state math test to be rated proficient, but, by 2009, a student needed to earn only 44 percent. Although most people would consider this a failing grade, the lowering of the “cut point” produced the desired results: In 2006, 55.6 percent of seventh graders were rated proficient, but, by 2009, that proportion had soared to 87.3 percent.

I am not opposed to testing. Test scores should be used to diagnose problems or to provide information about student progress or a program's effectiveness. They should be used to help students improve their learning and to help teachers become better at their jobs.

Test scores are misused, however, when they become blunt instruments to punish teachers or schools. States' standardized tests are not the equivalent of yardsticks or barometers. They have margins of error. If Johnny takes a test on a Monday, he could take the same test a week later and get a higher or lower score depending on any number of things, including Johnny’s mood, his health, the weather, the testing conditions in the room, or just random variation. The tests also sometimes contain errors or ambiguities. These are weak reeds on which to hang the fate and future of students, teachers, and schools.


In my book, I attempt to assemble evidence to show that teacher quality cannot be judged solely by student test scores. The scores depend to a large degree on which students are in a teacher’s class, and a teacher may have a highly motivated group of students one year that gets wonderful scores, but an unmotivated group the next year that gets average or poor scores. What's more, although it has become fashionable recently to discount the influence of poverty on student achievement, decades of social science research have demonstrated that test scores are highly correlated with income and social status. Just as teachers can't control which students they have in class each year, they can't control where those students come from.

The Obama administration's current drive to tie teachers’ evaluations to students’ test scores will only intensify NCLB's pernicious “teach to the test” mentality. Teachers will have even less incentive to teach non-tested subjects than before. As cognitive scientist Dan Willingham of the University of Virginia wrote recently in The Boston Globe, “If you thought No Child Left Behind led to an overemphasis on testing, wait for the test-prep frenzy that follows linking salaries to test scores.”

If we are serious about improving our schools, we must abandon the punitive rhetoric that threatens to drive away many good teachers. Of course, there should be better teacher evaluations, and bad teachers should be removed if they fail to improve with extra support. But evaluations should be thoughtful and must involve human judgment, not just rely on test scores. We can’t fire our way to better education. And we won’t attract better teachers by demonizing and scapegoating them whenever students fail to get higher scores. 

The research on charter schools, which the Obama administration also supports, gives little reason to hope that choice will provide the quantum improvement that is needed in American education. There are some 5,000 charter schools enrolling nearly 1.5 million students, or about 3 percent of U.S. public school students, and they have attracted the support of many politicians, philanthropists, and foundations. But charter schools vary widely in quality. Some are excellent, some are abysmal, and most are in-between. On average, they have not produced better results than regular public schools. Charter schools have been compared to regular public schools on the national assessments since 2003, and they have never outperformed regular public schools. Charters in Boston and New York City have gotten positive evaluations, but they typically have smaller proportions of the students who are hardest to educate--those with limited English and those with disabilities--than regular public schools.

High-performing charter chains such as KIPP and Achievement First rely on a steady infusion of young teachers who are willing to work 50 to 60-hour weeks (or more), and their turnover is often high. This model is inherently unsustainable because it discourages teacher professionalism and relies on a steady infusion of eager newcomers. Even friends of the movement admit that the high-performing charter chains will not be able to expand dramatically. Indeed, if the number of charters does expand quickly, many are likely to be mediocre.

There are two other concerns about the charter strategy. First, it is a form of privatization, in which public money and vulnerable students are handed over to private entrepreneurs who may or may not know what they are doing. To the extent that they skim off the most motivated students, public education will be weakened. In addition, the investment of so much public and private energy in the charter sector is ultimately a marginal and nonproductive way to improve American education. It might take five years or more to double the proportion of students in charters, which would bring their enrollment to 6 percent of the nation’s public school students. In the meantime, the system that educates the other 94 percent of students would suffer indifference and neglect.

Surely there is a role for charter schools, but they should not be established with the expectation that they will replace regular public schools. They should use their freedom from regulation to help the students with the highest needs and to share what they learn with other schools.


School improvement is hard work. It should involve students, teachers, parents, and the surrounding community. It will not occur if we continue to seek miracle programs, miracle schools, and miracle districts, which achieve dramatic results that no one else can replicate. The history of American education is already littered with the remnants of failed fads and movements.

We need better teachers, a solid curriculum that includes the full range of arts and sciences, and assessments that reflect the skills and knowledge that society values. Schools must impose standards of behavior, so that learning may proceed unhindered. We need to pay attention to the health and well-being of students, so that they arrive in school ready to learn.

We need to improve education in the United States. But history teaches that there are no shortcuts, no quick fixes, no easy answers.

Diane Ravitch is Research Professor of Education at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She is a historian of education.


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