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Originally published Saturday, April 17, 2010 at 7:02 PM

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Book review

'The Death and Life of the Great American School System': An indictment of standardized testing and school choice

In "The Death and Life of the American School System," author and education expert Diane Ravitch contends that measurement by standardized testing and market-based school choice have failed to improve American education.

Special to The Seattle Times

"The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education"

by Diane Ravitch

Basic Books, 288 pp., $26.94

The subtitle of Diane Ravitch's new book, "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education," leaves no mystery about where the New York University and Brookings Institution education-policy expert stands.

She argues persuasively that measurement by standardized testing and market-based approaches to school choice have been counterproductive in the extreme.

Ravitch was a former assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush and a Clinton-appointed member of the National Assessment Governing Board, which oversees federal education testing. She was at the White House on Jan. 23, 2001, when newly inaugurated President George W. Bush announced the principles that would become the foundation of the education act known as No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

If NCLB lived up to its promise, the nation could at last set aside "the all-time blockbuster of education reports," 1983's "A Nation at Risk," which "opened with the claim that 'the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity.' "

Ravitch believed the act's goals could provide a rising tide of a different kind: one that promoted excellence and achievement in U.S. schools. Then, in November 2006, she realized she had been terribly wrong.

NCLB was not the culmination of the changes launched by "A Nation at Risk," but a dangerous diversion. At a conference of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, "a dozen or so scholars" agreed that school choice, one of the principal instruments of the "NCLB tool kit," was not working.

Ravitch also concluded that the other key pillar of the act, assessment by standardized testing, had produced an illusion of progress, while in fact it had undermined the traditional strengths of the American educational system.

NCLB uses test results to reward or punish schools and faculties, creating a high-stakes environment. If a school fails to achieve "adequate yearly progress," it is at risk of being closed.

So many schools, struggling to survive, divert hundreds of instructional hours each year from history, social studies, science, the arts and physical education, and redirect those hours to test preparation.

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NCLB's damage has been compounded, Ravitch argues, by the well-meaning but ultimately misguided efforts of a new group of powerful private foundations, including the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This "Billionaire Boys Club," she writes, has overstepped traditional foundation boundaries.

"... Never in the history of the United States was there a foundation as rich and powerful as the Gates Foundation. Never was there one that sought to steer state and national policy in education. And never before was there a foundation that gave grants to almost every major think tank and advocacy group in the field of education, leaving almost no one willing to criticize its vast power and unchecked influence."

The author believes that though the Gates Foundation's intentions have been good, its size, resources and influence have dampened robust debate on education changes.

To its credit, the Gates Foundation recognized that its $2 billion foray into restructuring high schools, including the breakup and reconstitution of Mountlake Terrace High School, was largely unsuccessful, and recently changed course.

But Ravitch finds the new direction — "the proliferation of charter schools" and "the issue of teacher effectiveness" measured by student test performance — equally worrisome. Also alarming to her is that the Obama administration's new "Race to the Top" seems to advocate that same risky course.

With the nation's educational system at even greater risk than it was in 1983, Ravitch's powerful warning should be required reading for every school administrator and school-board member.

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