For a printable version of this statement, click on the title: High-Stakes Testing.
The primary and most important purpose of assessment is to find out what learners know and can do so that teachers can develop their strengths, support the areas where they struggle, and promote the learning process. High-stakes testing, however, distorts and undermines that process. By directing our focus to the scores instead of the learning process, high-stakes testing makes it difficult to fully understand what exactly is happening in our schools, and it makes it even more difficult for teachers and students to engage in real learning.
Students who know that a test may keep them from moving on to the next grade or graduating, or that their school may be closed or converted, face tremendous stress.
- For some students, the stress drives them to cheat, which makes it hard to know if they really need help.
- For other students, the stress makes it harder to think and perform, so they do poorly—and face unfair personal and academic consequences.
When teachers’ and schools’ professional survival depend on test scores, and they aren’t given the time, resources, or freedom they need to make meaningful changes to their teaching practices or curriculum, they are given a powerful incentive to cut corners. These practices may improve test scores, but they don’t improve education. Still, in their desperation to raise test scores, many school communities have:
- Narrowed the curriculum to just the tested subjects, and required teachers to teach those subjects in a way that mimics the test format
- Identified the students who are on the verge of passing the tests (“bubble kids”) and focused more instructional attention on those students, to the detriment of the other students
- Pushed low-performing students out of their school to create the appearance of higher performance
- Resorted to cheating, by looking at tests beforehand and rehearsing answers with students, or changing students’ answers after tests have been given.
Cities and states have frequently lowered their standards for proficiency in order to create the appearance of increased success. As a result,
- parents and students have been misled about their true learning needs
- voters, homeowners, and businesses have been misled about the quality of their community’s schools.
Exaggerating the importance of the outcomes of a test actually makes it harder to perform well. And, everyone involved in the testing process—from the student level all the way up to local, state, and federal officials—is given a powerful incentive to exaggerate their performance in order to avoid negative consequences. (And none of this even addresses deficiencies in the tests themselves!) So instead of getting information that can improve the learning process, we have information that may simultaneously give students, teachers, and schools more and less credit than they deserve.
So are we. How can such distorted information be a good basis for making high-stakes decisions about students, teachers, and schools—let alone national public policy?
For more resources and information about high-stakes testing, visit:
- The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest)
- School Accountability– A Broader, Bolder Approach
- McREL: Policy Brief on High Stakes Testing (PDF)