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Are high-stakes tests effectively measuring student learning in K-12 schools?


Over the past eight years, our American schools have seen an influx in the use of high-stakes tests. Specifically K-12 schools have undergone federal and state mandates to incorporate high-stakes tests under the No Child Left Behind Act. These assessment types come in the form of standardized tests. In Georgia, our young people are required to complete at an early age the Competency Criterion Reference Test (CRCT), and the End of the Course Test (ECT). In their latter years, they are required to successfully complete the Georgia High School Graduation Test. All of these standardized tests are designed to serve as high-stakes tests or valued-added tests. Consequently, promotion, retention, or graduation hinge on the students performance on these assessments. Are our political and school leaders placing undue stress on children’s developing minds?

Each semester I engage my graduate students in discussions over the controversy of the inclusion of high-stakes tests in our public schools. Several courses that I teach each include content that explore the effects of high-stakes assessments. So how does one define classroom assessment? This question is an example of one of my lead in questions to our discussions and almost invariably, the overwhelming response is testing. Most of my students are teachers studying to receive their master’s degree and based upon the overwhelming use of testing in our schools, these learners and educators have been reduced to define assessment simply as testing when many other assessment types exist. Several of these educators express that they find themselves facing time-lines to complete all instructions in preparation for the test and quite often they feel as if they are not teaching for purposes of learning, but teaching to the test. This sort of drill and practice leads to rote memorization and many behaviorists theorize that it is not true learning, as the students’ capacity to recall the material is short lived and their ability to apply the information is minimal.

So what challenges do we face by incorporating high-stakes tests in our American public schools? James Noll, author of Taking Sides Clashing Views on Educational Issues, presents an argument from critics who say “high-stakes tests are a command-and-control instrument for standardizing education and punishing disadvantaged and minority children.” Educators no longer practice the mid-twentieth century approach to teaching known as Perennialism. Under Perennialism, one principle suggests that the child is an empty vessel who brings no prior learning experience to the classroom. We now understand that children do bring a great deal of prior learning experience to the classroom. Since the affluent generally have more experience than the disadvantage and minority students, the standardized test depicts limitations in disadvantage and minority students. Other educators and various experts challenge the validity and reliability of these instruments. These individuals maintain that many learners are good students in the classroom, but not good test-takers. Because many learners in both Pedagogical and Andragogical environments suffer from test anxiety, the standardized test does not accurately and consistently measure student learning. All too often I hear my students say my best performing student(s) in the classroom did not pass the CRCT and I can not understand why! As a result, these tests also have psychological effects on student learners.

So how can we effectively use standardized tests in our schools to accurately measure student learning? Ken Jones, a teacher and education director, suggested several ways to make high-stakes tests work in public education. First Mr. Jones says that we must make certain that learning and not testing is the goal. We have to deviate from teaching to the test. Next, disadvantaged students must receive special assistance.

High-stakes tests can improve disadvantage and at-risk students’ academic performance, but the schools in most need must receive the proper, human, fiscal and financial resources. Also Jones feels that failure rates must be set at realistic levels. Because many schools lack the resources to provide the necessary remedial resources, setting the failure rate too low may prove a threat to a school’s credibility. We must also invest in a plethora of educational reforms, versus just tests. Tests should not work independently, but they must be a part of a system wide effort to improve student learning. Retention should be the last result, as its affect often creates more harm than good. Many students who are retained dropout of school at greater rates than any other population.

To this end, as an educator and researcher I personally do not dislike the use of standardized tests in our schools. I am disappointed in the manner in which these tests are used. High-stakes tests are weighted to heavily. I do not think that these assessment instruments should carry a high-stakes value, nor should in other assessment type. I feel that our schools are better served with performance-based (authentic) assessment such as portfolios, oral reports, peer assessments and group presentations (to name a few); as these assessment types teach young people skills that transfer to the world outside of the classroom. Our students are better served using these assessment types and they provide students with multiple means of demonstrating learning. I challenge all my readers to investigate the use of standardized tests, their impact and success rates (as it pertains to student measurement and learning) and compare them to alternative assessment types such as performance-based assessment. Finally make your voices known to your local school boards and schools themselves.

For more info: To see more of Dr. Williams publications relating to assessment in K-12 and Higher Education schools, click on the links below.

Assessing Student Achievement the Right Way: A Study of Practicing Teachers

Assessment of Student Learning Practices: The Perceptions of Faculty Members andAdministrators at A Public University in The University System of Georgia


  • MeLinda Sullivan 5 years ago

    This reading has been very informative. I concurr with the findings. Standardized testing weighs too heavily. Teachers often find themselves teaching to test not to learn. That alone is a diservice to our students. Other methods of assesment should be used to evaluated students learning.It is quite often students can be very productive in the classroom and not scored well on these standradized test. The attention given to passing test such as the CRCT places undue stress on the students.

  • David J. Houston, Jr. 5 years ago

    This article is very timely in setting the stage for dual thoughts on measuring progress from high stake tests and learning and using concepts in a classrom setting. I challenge the writer in exporing ways of teaching thinking along with test taking and using that procedure to explore learning. It maybe discovered that a process of this sort may provide more creative and mental initiatives for all students,including those from economic and social special need backgrounds.

  • Janine Williams 5 years ago

    This article is very thought provoking. I have often wondered how much learning is actually retained by students once testing is completed. I belive performance based assessment, as referenced in the article, is more advantageous to the students. Portfolios can be used as a great tool to determine what students have learned at the end of each quater/semester. Oral presentations are extremely important to incorporate because platform speaking is a skill required on many jobs. The earlier students become comfortable with platform speaking the better off they will be.

  • Reader 5 years ago

    Not in Atlanta Public Schools. Because the teachers keep changing all de answers.