The Real Cost of High-Stakes Testing

In an age of accountability and high stakes testing, public education has accomplished a lot. We have managed to utilize assessment data trends to identify resources and programs to support students’ educational needs. We have also learned how to breakdown objectives or learning standards to their most intricate parts to align our resources. Most of all we have developed ways to hold educators accountable for student achievement…One question remains: at what cost are we making all of these efforts? In other words, what have we sacrificed for this “data-driven” approach to education?

From the literature on students’ motivation for learning, we have come to understand that students learn more when they experience activities that they enjoy and find meaningful and interesting. However, as educators face growing pressure to prepare students to perform well in math and reading in high-stakes testing, public schools slip into predictable traps. Namely, educators implement instructional strategies that boil down content to isolated bits of information at the same time that they dramatically reduce the amount of time and resources used to engage students in creative, interdisciplinary activities and real-world projects that inspire learning.

We also know that students are motivated to work harder when they are able to personalize the purpose of learning. Yet, our high-stakes testing culture communicates to students that we value scoring well on tests as the overarching goal for engaging in learning. Sometimes in curriculum and teacher professional development, teachers and principals blur the lines between student learning and student achievement when they promote blatant “teaching to the test” practices couched in ideas like “backwards planning” or “teaching with the end in mind.”

Finally, research shows that academic achievement is influenced, in part, by self-concept and self-efficacy. Unfortunately, the heavy emphasis on high-stakes testing encourages teachers and administrators to view students as test-score increasers or suppressors rather than contributors to the learning environment or in terms of their incredible human potential. In turn, students, especially those from impoverished or at-risk environments, perceive this and come to define themselves as winners or losers on the basis of their test performance, to their academic and emotional detriment.

With our current trends, it is clear that high stakes testing and accountability are not likely to go away anytime soon.  Nevertheless, leaders in school systems can take measures to minimize their harmful effects and to foster a school culture that emphasizes student learning and preparation for life’s challenges.  Here are a few ideas to begin this process:

1. If school leaders want to ensure that students get enough test practice, they should schedule periodic practice times that are spread throughout the year rather than just two or three weeks before high-stakes tests are administered. Schools should, at least, refrain from engaging in test-prep boot camps where they shut down regular classroom instruction for intense focus specifically on the test at hand. Such activities only reinforce the impression that the test is the primary goal of schooling.

2. Administrators and teachers should work together to foster a productive mindset about testing. As a start, rebrand “tests” as “performance opportunities” and use language in the classroom that focuses on mastering knowledge, improving individual ability.

3. School leaders should focus on the value of schooling as a method to prepare how to live. As teachers use instructional resources and pedagogy that bring fun and authentic engagement back to the classroom, students can be encouraged to participate in activities that relate to what they’re going to be doing outside of and beyond school.

4. Administrators and teachers should strive to create a culture that encourages cooperation and service instead of competition. We now know that students are more likely to be successful in school when they have a sense of belonging. Making these kinds of connections leads to a more significant effort, greater persistence, and positive attitudes. Feelings of rejection have the opposite effects.

If we put the same energy and intensity that we have invested in high-stakes testing into understanding how to enhance the quality of students’ learning experiences, we might actually experience more success in getting more students to reach their full potential…and, hopefully, make room for learning in education again.