High Stakes Testing Undermines The Quality of Education

To better hold schools accountable for educating students, during the past two decades many U.S. states mandated that students pass certain exams for high school graduation. As highlighted in an article in the New York Times, as these high-stakes achievement tests spread, many schools stepped up their testing programs, eliminated social promotions and secondary school academic course credits were contingent upon passing these tests.

The U.S. “No Child Left Behind Act” of 2002 broadens high-stakes testing to identify “passing” or “failing” schools. The law mandates that each state evaluate every public school’s performance through annual achievement testing and publish the results. Schools that consistently perform poorly must give parents options for upgrading their children’s education. In some states, school-wide rewards for high scores and penalties for low scores are already in place. Rewards include financial bonuses while penalties include withdrawal of accreditation, state takeover, and closure. Proponents of high-stakes testing believe it will introduce greater rigor into classroom teaching, and improve student motivation and achievement. However, accumulating evidence indicates that high-stakes testing often undermines the quality of education.

Recent studies showing the impact of requiring students to pass high school exit exams, demonstrates that the teacher has to narrow the scope of what was taught to strings of facts to be memorized to pass the exam. High-stakes testing also promotes fear- a poor motivator for upgrading teaching and learning. Faculty and staff worry about losing funding and possibly their jobs if students do poorly. Many students, who pass courses, fail the exams because a limited time test with several dozen multiple choice questions can only tap a small sampling of skills covered in the classroom. Many experts point out that tests measuring achievement at the school or district level are imprecise instruments for making decisions about individuals. A recent study by the state of Massachusetts demonstrated that relying solely on test scores and ignoring teacher-assigned grades (which take into account effort and a broad range of skills) amplify achievement gaps along racial, economic and social areas

The trend toward “teaching for the tests” induced by high-stakes testing contrasts sharply with the emphasis on teaching for deeper understanding. Even after hundreds of hours of class time devoted to test preparation, thousands of students in high school with diploma-driven exams, fail and do not graduate. Most try again and again to pass, but fail repeatedly with potentially dire consequences for the course of their lives. Many issues remain for lawmakers and educators to resolve about the use of high-stakes tests, including their ethnic and gender fairness and the questionable power to spark school reforms that make students better learners.

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