Diane Ravitch: Family income often determines how well students perform on standardized tests

By: - March 16, 2019 5:31 pm
Diane Ravitch

Celebrated educational policy analyst Diane Ravitch told a group of North Carolina educators and public school advocates Saturday that standardized tests scores often reflect family income, with wealthier students outperforming their poorer counterparts.

But Ravitch, noting the recent academic scandal involving wealthy parents who paid millions of dollars so their children could gain admission to a top university, said that isn’t always the case.

“Now we saw with the recent cheating scandal for the college boards, there are lot of dumb kids whose parents are rich,” quipped Ravitch.

The scandal to which Ravitch referred involved more than 33 parents, including Hollywood stars and wealthy CEOS, who took part in a scheme to cheat on the SAT and ACT to help their children gain admission to top universities.

Ravitch made her comments via Skype during a “community conversation” in Raleigh to discuss the toll excessive testing has on teachers and students.

Dane West, a Lee County teacher, said the culture of testing can destroy a child’s dream as early as third-grade.

West said children in the third-grade who don’t pass end-of-grade tests are being told they’re not on a path that will lead to college or a meaningful career.

“You have a generation of kids growing up who are being told they are failures and have no future,” West said. “It weighs on them and it shows up in how the view school.”

Suzanne Miiler, founder of NC. Families for School Testing Reform, poses for a photo during a March 16 community conversation about the toll of excessive testing on students and teachers.

Meredith Pinckney, a Wake County agricultural science teacher, said her students aren’t tested but she sees the impact excessive testing has on them.

“The anxiety is real,” Pinckney said. “We literally have kids who skip test days because they don’t want to be there. That’s unfortunate that’s where we are.”

Saturday’s event was hosted by N.C. Families for School Testing Reform (NCFSTR), Save our Schools NC and Jen Mangrum, a candidate for State Superintendent of Public Instruction.

Several dozen educators attended the community conversation as well as a handful of elected officials, some of who later sat on a panel to discuss the state of education in North Carolina.

Ravitch said students from low-income households who perform poorly on standardized tests don’t do so because they don’t have the brains to score well.

“Children who grow up in poverty are likely to have low test scores, not because they’re not smart but because they’re hungry, or they haven’t had decent medical care, they’re growing up in situations that are disadvantageous to their health and well-being and that affects their test scores,” Ravitch said.

Federal and state leaders have given too much weight to standardized tests, Ravitch said.

She said the tests are often flawed and shouldn’t be used to measure student and teacher success.

“The appropriate use of testing is diagnostic,” Ravitch said. “Tests today have no diagnostic value whatsoever, so standardized testing is being totally misused to judge everybody for accountability purposes and it’s not supposed to be used that way.”

In North Carolina, State Superintendent Mark Johnson has announced new initiatives to reduce the amount of testing currently required of students in North Carolina’s public schools.

Johnson has pledged to reduce the number of questions on tests, reduce the time students must sit for tests, change testing policies to reduce the stress at schools, work with local leaders to reduce the number of locally required tests and push to eliminate tests not required by the federal government.

A survey about testing conducted by Johnson’s office found that 78 percent of the roughly 42,000 parents who responded said their child takes too many tests. Seventy-six percent of teachers who responded said North Carolina’s public school students were being tested too much.

And the State Board of Education is weighing the elimination of the state’s fourth grade exams in science and social studies and the fifth-grade exam in social studies as way to reduce the amount of testing in North Carolina Schools.

Critics of high-stakes, standardized testing said they understand some testing is needed, but believe the state now requires students to take too many exams.

“We’re concerned with the excessive testing that is putting a strain on our children, it’s bringing shame to them, it’s putting them in environments that are not optimal for their learning and social-emotional learning,“ said Suzanne Miller, founder of NCFSTR.

Miller said Saturday’s event was a first step toward raising awareness about excessive testing to bring about a cultural change.

“We need to make sure parents and teachers know they can do something about this and empower teachers to use their voices to say something needs to change,” Miller said. “And we need to be in conversations with our legislators and policy makers to let them know how we’re feeling and that we really do need change, not only for our own kids, but for the entire state. It’s an issue across the state.”

State Sen. Floyd McKissick, (D-Durham) said the General Assembly must address the fact that many teachers feel they’re teaching students to only pass standardized tests.

“Our dependence and reliance on standardized tests needs to be rethought,” McKissick said. “We need to come up with alternative means to evaluate students and to diagnose their strengths and weaknesses.”


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Greg Childress
Greg Childress

Education Reporter Greg Childress covers all aspects of public education in North Carolina, including debates over school funding, curricula, privatization, and teacher pay and licensing.