High Stakes Testing is the development of a movement in education and elsewhere to improve outcomes of student learning in a quantitative manner. The testing movement, though it has been around for a significant amount of time, its inception beginning during the first movement to standardize curriculum across grade levels and states, has found new emphasis in modern education. The new emphasis of codifying success and/or failure is an outgrowth of years of criticism of the standard public education system in the U.S., and culminated in a piece of legislation, furthered by president George W. Bush, and his supporters in congress. (Volger, 2004) the No Child Left Behind program has created a legalized enforcement system that raises the stakes of high stakes testing to new levels and places significant demands on educators and students. (Burnstein, 2006) “High stakes testing is a concern of many educational research organizations (AERA, 2000; Miller, 2001), and most discipline-based organizations have drafted statements critical of high stakes testing.” (Costigan 2002)
Even with the controversy already surrounding the practice of high stakes testing it has been adopted as the standard guide to reformation and change and will likely continue to be questioned as a viable assessment tool. Several problems exist with using high stakes testing as an assessment tool; high stakes testing is intimidating to teachers, high stakes testing can create a natural narrowing of curriculum, teachers feel trapped to cover test material rather than curriculum, lecture style teaching dominates when test preparation is the goal and lastly high stakes testing ignores important demographic information that can skew understandings gained from test scores. “High-stakes testing, even at its best, puts a strain on good pedagogy, places a huge burden on students and teachers, and creates winners and losers in an education system that needs to have all winners.” (Lederman, 2006)
High stakes testing can be particularly troubling to new teachers as many find the rigors of teaching to tests difficult and in some cases oppressive. Fresh from the education system new teachers are finding almost instant disillusionment with the profession and its restraints. (Costigan 2002) in a situation where many seek answers to the problem of teacher shortages, skewed by the demographic of many quality teachers available in the pool of workers but not teaching, the embracing of high stakes testing would seem contraindicated. “Today in the United States 50% of those entering the teaching profession quit by the fifth year due to overcrowded classrooms, student behavior problems, lack of parental support, administrators lacking knowledge and skill, and teacher salaries that are inadequate for raising their own families.” (Rubinstein 2005)
Many new teachers find that they haven’t been adequately trained for the high stakes testing dominated environments that they are now teaching in. New teachers may also find that the lack of creativity in their lesson plans due to a highly regimented approach of teaching to the high stakes test to be unrewarding. Adding to the list of reasons cited for leaving the profession, in the very near future will likely be the pressures of high stakes testing, and this does not include only new teachers, as even seasoned professionals are leaving due to these same pressures combined with the changes in autonomy and voice that accompanies high stakes testing.
Curriculum loss can also be a direct result of the embracing of high stakes testing assessments as teachers tend to alter teaching plans and curriculum to meet the demands of the test material. Test material is especially devoid of creative materials and in an already challenged environment creative options may be lost in the process, including funding cuts for programs that broaden the minds of students, such as art and music, but do not test well. “What is a quality social studies program? Today teachers and social studies educators are not the ones answering that question; instead, it is being answered by those who develop high-stakes tests. The anonymous individuals who develop the tests by which educational quality is measured exercise great influence in defining educational quality.” (Savage 2003) in this environment, as Savage points out only those programs that demand to be tested, if they are not already will remain as part of the curriculum and this could seriously narrow the scope of what is taught in the schools, possibly creating a return to the rather bland early curriculum of the three Rs.
State standards… fail to distinguish what is important from what is unimportant, and much of what is important cannot be tested with a paper-and-pencil test of a few hours duration. In the best elementary and middle school education, students read, talk, and write about real stories. They conduct science experiments, write papers, make oral presentations, prepare computer-based presentations, evaluate and synthesize information from a variety of fields, and apply their learning to new situations. Standardized tests are poor tools for evaluating these important kinds of learning. If instruction focuses on the test, students have few opportunities to display the attributes of higher-order thinking, such as analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and creativity, which are needed for success in school, college, and life. (Neill 2006)
Standardized tests based on standardized curriculum should remain as they always have been as a tool used as only part of the assessment of outcomes. Other quality assessment tools must also be utilized to glean a true understanding of the needs of curriculum, educators and students. There is no doubt that recognizing what is important will become increasingly difficult, when standardized testing is the only tool of assessment seen to have any merit. Many teachers of subjects not included in the high stakes tests have pushed for their subject to be included, not because they feel this is a better method of educational scrutiny, but because they want their subject to continue to be taught. “Whole subjects, such as science, social studies, art, or physical education may be reduced or eliminated if only language arts and math are tested.” (Neill 2006)
The reduction of teacher voice, and autonomy is an event that will likely challenge even the most seasoned professional, as the reasons teachers stay in the profession often revolve around the comfort they feel in their ability to have a voice in the teaching process, including curriculum as well as style. If this voice is continually stifled, through high stakes testing more teachers will leave and the system will become even more strained than it already is. Teachers, even in schools that emphasize teaching curriculum, rather than teaching to test, often feel excessively pressured to teach to test and throw the curriculum out the window. In less progressive environments the pressure can be even higher:
The third problem associated with using a single indicator has been the implementation of “teacher-proof” curricula. In an effort to improve test scores in the shortest amount of time, school systems, usually urban and serving students from low-income families, are buying and implementing packaged curricular programs (Falk 2002; McNeil 2000; Vogler and Kennedy 2003). Manufacturers tout these curricular programs as quick and effective ways to improve test scores. The program materials include teacher and student workbooks, teacher guides and highly scripted lessons that tell the teacher exactly what to say and when to say it. (Volger, 2004)
Creating a system that even a teacher cannot screw up indicates a devalued position for teachers, as they face daily the fact that the system does not appreciate or desire their input in the curriculum or even the classroom. Though some teachers might embrace the idea of having their teaching canned, requiring little effort on their part those are the teachers that the system would like to see leave, rather than the quality teachers stepping out of teaching because they have lost their ability to teach in the manner they have worked hard to develop and received a slap in the face on the way out the door. (Volger, 2004) “Teachers want their voices to be heard and want the opportunity to discuss ways in which they can reconcile philosophical differences.” (Jones, 2006)
It has been recognized by most educators for a very long time that lecture style teaching is not as effective as hands on learning and yet the high stakes testing system is inherently demanding of just such a teaching style. Tedious drills are often the best way to prepare for high stakes tests. Students are turned increasingly off from learning with this teaching method. Other learning styles that encourage creativity are discouraged when high stakes testing is the goal of achievement. “Teachers are not able to be free in their teaching styles. Because everyone has to be taught for the test.” (Costigan, 2002) in this environment there is no doubt that that there will be countless situations of loss, on the part of the teacher and more importantly the student as students frequently disengage when curriculum is presented in a manner that does not keep their attention. Students must be offered material in a manner that allows then to identify with it, if this goal is not met, because drills are the demand of the testing style then students will lose interest and grades and scores will drop, a contraindication of the accountability movement.
Recognition of quality and lack there of should be a basic goal of the education system, as it strives to direct resources and change situations that are not meeting the demands of accountability, yet it is clear that High Stakes testing does a poor job identifying good schools and good teachers as it ignored, by default important information that is not available on the test scores. It has been clear for countless years that socioeconomics, for example plays a much larger role in most high stakes test scores than the ability of the teacher, as it does in many other issues surrounding student performance and even long-term lifetime outcomes. Excellent teachers in poorer school districts will be misidentified as substandard due to factors beyond their control, and students will be held back based on circumstances outside of their control, if a single form of assessment is to be the rule.
The majority of students who failed the MCAS examinations were from school districts serving low social class and poor or working class families. The report supports one of the most fundamental arguments against high-stakes testing — scores on high-stakes tests are only a measure of students’ socioeconomic status (Clancy 2000; Kohn 2001; Sacks 1999; Wilgoren 2000; Zwick 2002). It seems that students’ performances on high-stakes tests have “almost everything to do with parental socioeconomic backgrounds, and less to do with teachers, curricula, or what the children learned in the classroom” (Clancy 2000, A19). These tests merely perpetuate and reinforce inequalities in public education Kozol (1991) described over a decade ago. (Volger, 2004)
Yet, despite this clear indication that the tests are not testing what their implementers intend them to test has not seemed to create enough of a conflict to demand the return of multiple resource assessment, and schools and systems continue to validate the high stakes testing system without choice.
In conclusion, the validity of single aspect assessment is clearly in question, from the top of the chain of command to the youngest student struggling with test material and lecture-based curriculum, devoid of creativity. Several problems exist with using high stakes testing as a single weighty assessment tool; high stakes testing is intimidating to new and seasoned teachers, high stakes testing can create inherant narrowing of curriculum, teachers feel pressured to cover test material rather than curriculum, lecture style teaching dominates when test preparation is the only feasible goal and lastly high stakes testing ignores important demographic, the greatest of which is socioeconomic status which can skew understandings gained from test scores and erroneously narrow perceptions of quality of teacher, student and system.
Costigan, Arthur T. (Winter 2002). Teaching the Culture of High Stakes Testing: Listening to New Teachers. Action in Teacher Education, v. 23 no4, 28-34. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Edwords, Fred. (May/June 2005). The Issue at Hand. The Humanist, v. 65 no3, 3. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Johnson, Dale D., & Johnson, Bonnie. (2006). High Stakes: Poverty, Testing, and Failure in American Schools (2nd ed). Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield.
Jones, Brett D. & Egley, Robert J. (June 2006). Looking Through Different Lenses: Teachers’ and Administrators’ Views of Accountability. Phi Delta Kappan, v. 87 no10, 767-71. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Lederman, Leon M. & Burnstein, Ray a. (Feb. 2006). Alternative Approaches to High-Stakes Testing. Phi Delta Kappan, v. 87 no6, 429-32. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
McGill-Franzen, Anne. (June 2006). Contamination of Current Accountability Systems. Phi Delta Kappan, v. 87 no10, 762-6. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Neill, Monty. (March/April 2006). The Case Against High-Stakes Testing. Principal, v. 85 no4, 28-32. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Rubinstein, Robert E. (May/June 2005). To Teach or Not to Teach? The Humanist, v. 65 no3, 15-16. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Savage, Tom V. (Sept./Oct. 2003). Assessment and Quality Social Studies. The Social Studies, v. 94 no5, 201-6. Retrieved October 31, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
Volger, Kenneth E. (Summer 2004). College Dreams: High-Stakes Testing Reality. Journal of College Admission, 184, 5-11. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from First Search: WilsonSelectPlus.
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