High-Stakes Testing By: Alice Wellborn

High-stakes testing is currently one of the biggest issues in public education – for both parents and teachers.  Let’s take a look at the purpose of these tests, their intent, and their unintended consequences.

A high-stakes test is any test that is used to make significant decisions about students, teachers, and schools.  In public education, those decisions have to do with accountability for academic performance.

Schools and school systems are rewarded or punished based on the overall test performance of their students.  Results are published in the newspaper, schools are graded, sanctions are applied, resources are given or taken away.

Students are promoted or retained based on their test scores.  Students who do not pass high-stakes tests in high school have difficulty earning credits and may be barred from earning a high school diploma.  Failure to earn a high school diploma relegates a young person to a marginal economic existence as an adult.

Teacher evaluations are often based largely on test scores.  In some states, salaries are based on test scores.  The educational bureaucracy defines a good teacher as one whose students do well on the high-stakes tests.

What is the intent of the high-stakes testing program?  The intent is to increase the quality of public education by making schools and teachers accountable for educational results – that is, student learning.  This is a laudable goal!  Schools and teachers should be accountable for effective instruction and strong student growth.  We do need to have appropriately high expectations for all children.  But here are the underlying assumptions behind high-stakes testing:

  • All students are equally capable of learning, including kids who are disabled, English language learners, homeless, and/or living in poverty.
  • Test scores are an accurate measure of student learning and the quality of instruction.
  • Public education will improve if rewards and punishments are tied to test scores.
  • The defining factors in the quality of public education are the competence and motivation of the individual teachers (that is, when students don’t learn it’s because the teachers are lazy and incompetent).

These assumptions are largely incorrect.  Not all of us have the same strengths – the normal curve does exist!  For many children, one test score does not accurately show the results of a year of learning.  More than a decade of rewards and punishments, sanctions and humiliations, has not “fixed” public education.  The competence of classroom teachers is strongly tied to student achievement, but so are a lot of other factors.  In a typical American childhood, just 15% of a child’s waking hours (0-18) are spent in school (K-12)!  That other 85% is pretty important too.

There are many negative consequences connected to high-stakes testing.  Most of these come from the incentive structure that high-stakes testing places on schools, teachers, and students.  All the incentives are in the test score bucket!  What are the results?

  • Teaching to the test.  If learning is judged by test scores, then test scores drive instruction.
  • Narrowing the curriculum.  If it’s not on the test, it’s given short shrift in the curriculum.
  • Less instructional time.  All the testing and practice-testing eat up significant amounts of instructional time.
  • Cheating on the test. When test scores are what matters the most, cheating becomes a huge temptation – by teachers and administrators as well as by students.
  • Taking the fun out of learning.  High-stakes tests are extremely stressful for teachers and students.
  • Spending millions of dollars on tests rather than on instruction.  In a time of dwindling resources in public schools, substantial amounts of time and money are spent on testing instead of teaching.
  • Focusing instruction on a subset of the student population.  Schools need students to pass the test and show growth.  As a result, there is no incentive to spend much time and effort on those students who definitely will pass the test or those who definitely will not pass.
  • Making school a failure experience for children who struggle with learning.  Are you motivated by failure?  I’m not.

This is not what most teachers and parents want from public schools!

Providing a quality public education to all children should be our goal, but we can’t meet that goal by testing kids and punishing schools and teachers.  Teachers are not responsible for poverty, homelessness, substance abuse, abuse and neglect, and all the other environmental factors that significantly affect a child’s ability to learn in school.  High-stakes tests don’t change the reality of many children’s lives.

The political support for high-stakes testing seems to be eroding.  In some states, parents are able to opt-out of testing for their children.  In others, the legislature is revisiting the laws that require high-stakes testing.  Make your opinions known, whatever those might be!

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