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Brooks, Ravitch and High Stakes Testing

July 17, 2011

I have read, with interest, the discussion between David Brooks and Diane Ravitch on public school reform initiatives. These two writers agree that the most important and enduring quality of good schools is a culture of humanity, high expectations, and support created by teachers who  see their work as important and inspirational. Where the two arguments diverge is on the issue of high stakes testing: Brooks suggests that testing in the hands of talented, passionate, inspiring teachers can be managed without sacrificing and lacerating instructional creativity and independence. Ravitch (who knows the details in practice) reminds us that high stakes testing can be destructive and corrosive to the art of teaching- it can lead to Dickensian rote learning and memorization; it can ignite manipulative and unethical use of testing results and statistics.

The problem, as I see it, is that good 21st century schools must be focused on the essential skills of critical thinking, analysis, argumentation, and collaboration, yet multiple choice questions cannot assess, reward or honor the intellectual habits we most value as we cultivate citizens ready to lead in our democracy. If the tests were worthy, if the tests asked students to consider complex and intriguing questions that inspire a reverence for the life of the mind, we could embrace this public sanctioning of testing. However, teachers know that compelling, thoughtful and powerful tests are actually difficult to create and to write, even in the privacy of our own classrooms and schools, even without the clumsy, unwieldy, and distorting weight of multiple choice testing.

Our best way forward is to focus on making sure that we create cultures in all our schools that welcome students, that ignite, affirm and celebrate our American belief in the power of education to transform lives and enrich our civic life. We need to develop assessments that honor the complexity and excitement of the learning process: our tests should be, in Ted Sizer’s words, “exhibitions” of what our students can do, not moments of peril for principals, teachers, students and parents.

Tad Roach, Headmaster

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