Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Educational Policy: High-Stakes Testing

Emphasis on high-stakes, standardized testing in the United States, dates back to the mid-1800s and parallels what was happening in England during this period. At that time, decision makers used high-stakes testing for purposes of accountability and “the stakes were much higher for teachers than for students…. Indeed…there were no repercussions at all for students” (Wiliam, 2010, p. 109). Wiliam went on to note that in the United States between 1910 and 1940, the norm was for students to attend school until they were 18, and it was “inappropriate to assess students against standards intended for the small proportion going on to higher education” (p. 109). In terms of 21st-century school accountability, a research study conducted by Stranahan, H. A. Borg, and Borg (2009) concluded that schools ought to be held accountable for the quality of the education they provide, whereas the school’s performance grade is best determined by how much students’ test scores improved over time and not based on the aggregate level of student scores in a year. This conclusion is contrary in theory to the guidelines outlined in the Federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB).
Through current research, Amrein and Berliner (2003) found that the importance placed on high-stakes testing denies students’ “opportunities to direct their own learning as they “become less intrinsically motivated to learn and less likely to engage in critical thinking” (p. 32). Moreover, in a recent Texas study, McNeil, Coppola, Radigan, and Heilig (2008) found that too often in-class curriculum takes the form of standardized test drills that “drifts towards ensuring that students can answer the questions that will appear on the tests…. This narrower, more rigid curriculum affects students and their motivation to complete school” (p. 28). These authors found that “teaching to the test” had a negative effect on students’ desire to complete school. In addition, a lack of motivation often led to students repeating a grade because of poor standardized test results. The authors concluded that as a result, “students who are required to repeat a grade lose face in front of their parents, community, and peers” (McNeil, Coppola, Radigan, & Heilig, 2008, p. 30). In a recent study by Williams (2003), she concluded that high-stakes testing erodes students’ enthusiasm for learning, and that motivational assessment strategies, based on predominantly formative and relevant lessons, were more effective and meaningful. In addition, high-stakes testing de-personalizes the learning process by placing the primary “focus on standards, accountability, and assessment rather than providing a multicultural education” (University of Phoenix, 2012, “Week Eight Lecture Notes,” p. 1).
According to Gunzenhauser (2003), “the default philosophy underlying high-stakes testing is a philosophy of education in which tests designed to be part of a system of accountability drive the curriculum, limit instructional innovation, and keep educators from establishing their own priorities and vision” (p. 52), which inevitably results in conflicts regarding these tests’ effectiveness as assessment tools. Gunzenhauser went on to warn school communities not “to settle for the default philosophy of education associated with high-stakes testing” (p. 58). Another significant drawback of placing too much importance on standardized test results is that various studies have shown questions on these tests are inherently bias. Freedle (2006) found that questions on both the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) and the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) were “racially biased in terms of mean correct responses because they make the false assumption that all examinees have had equal opportunity to learn the concepts and materials used in the test” (p. 187). In addition, Freedle noted multiple examples of ethnic bias in the SAT in terms of vocabulary, which led to “false conclusions regarding racial and ethnic differences” (p. 187). The author concluded that these particular standardized “test results influence racial theories of genetic superiority and inferiority… [and that these] tests can distort the true ability of large groups of disadvantaged students” (p. 225). Ultimately, such biased results and their interpretation negatively influence the educational and career choices students have who are affected by these standardized tests. In other recent research, Boaler (2003) noted in a localized study that standardized testing caused barriers for many California math students by disrupting the classroom learning process because teachers were mandated to “teach to the test.”
Even though many private/prep schools, colleges, universities, and graduate schools use standardized test scores for placement purposes, unless these institutions place less emphasis on standardized testing, allowing admission decisions to be based more on personal attributes rather than impersonal test scores, the injustice of the current system will remain. In terms of high-stakes testing determining school performance, decision makers need to re-evaluate the accountability criteria used to measure such assessments, placing more emphasis on classroom effectiveness and the learning process, while de-emphasizing grades and test results.
To address the needs of 21st-century learners, there needs to be measurable changes made to the way in which the current educational system assesses student progress and achievement. High-stakes, standardized testing needs to be de-emphasized in our schools, allowing the learning process to be the priority, rather than relying on the impersonal, and often times inaccurate, interpretation of test results. This represents an educational change in policy and practice that would promote a better and more effective learning experience for the 21st-century student.

Amrein, A. T., & Berliner, D. C. (2003). The effects of high-stakes testing on student motivation and learning. Educational Leadership 60(3), 32-38. Retrieved from
Boaler, J. (2003). When learning no longer matters: Standardized testing and the creation of inequality. Phi Delta Kappan, 84(7), 502-506. Retrieved from
Freedle, R. (2006). How and why standardized tests systematically underestimate African-Americans’ true verbal ability and what to do about it: Towards the promotion of two new theories with practical applications. St. John’s Law Review 80(1), 183-226. Retrieved from
Gunzenhauser, M. G. (2003). High-stakes testing and the default philosophy of education. Theory Into Practice, 42(1), 51-58. Retrieved from
McNeil, L. M., Coppola, E., Radigan, J., & Heilig, J. V. (2008). Avoidable losses: High-stakes accountability and the dropout crisis. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 16(3), 1-45. Retrieved from
Stranahan, H. A., Borg, J. R., & Borg, M. O. (2009). School grades based on standardized test scores: Are they fair? Journal of Academic & Business Ethics, 1, 38-56. Retrieved from
University of Phoenix. (2012). Week Eight Lecture Notes. Retrieved from
Wiliam, D. (2010). Standardized testing and school accountability. Educational Psychologist 45(2), 107-122. doi:10.1080/00461521003703060
Williams, N. M. (2003). Thinking outside the bubble. Educational Leadership, 61(3), 82-83. Retrieved from

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