What You Should Know About High-Stakes Testing

Learn about how high-stakes testing affects teachers, schools and children.

High stakes testing has become a prominent part of the political landscape in the United States. With the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), standardized testing has become even more important to the functioning of today's schools. High-stakes standardized testing affects all public and publicly funded schools, from elementary school to high school.

How do the tests affect children?

Some people believe that standardized testing helps children by setting a threshold that all children should be able to meet by a certain age. This is certainly a fine ideal, that all children should be able to read at a certain level or perform specific types of equations by the time they reach a certain grade level, but it may not be the reality. Children will continue to develop at their own rates, as they always have.

Some children may eventually get testing "burn-out." Some schools administer multiple practice tests in order to gauge the areas that need improvement, both academically and with the administration of the test itself, which can be a persnickety process. This takes time away from classroom instruction and can cause students to wonder which test is the most important. Ultimately, it may devalue testing and evaluation in general.

Some children are also asked to sit in hours long workshops without breaks, in order to learn very specific test strategies. Children learn that testing is important, but it is unclear how many of the competencies are retained.

The reality is that many school administrators cannot keep their jobs unless all groups of children perform well on the test in a given year. If the school is located in an area where there are many children who historically tend to have poorer performance on these tests, second language learners and children from low socioeconomic backgrounds being an example, the administrator may focus more on improving test scores than anything else. Some administrators are very talented, and can help their school to provide quality instruction while teaching the skills for the test, which should be how it works for every school. Others, however, facing burnt-out teachers and lacking creativity, tend to focus on the test itself, which makes for very boring, one-dimensional instruction for the children at the school.

Do the tests accurately measure school performance?

When looking at a school's performance, it is good to delve deep into the numbers, and find out what exactly is behind them. For example, a school may not attain a satisfactory status if a subgroup of students fails to meet the standards of the test. For example, if a small group of Hispanic students at a predominately Anglo school fail to meet the standards, does that mean that the school is a bad school, or could it mean that the students do not have the language skills that they need to perform satisfactorily? If the latter is true, perhaps the test results will pressure the school into implementing a more intensive English as a Second Language program, which could be a good thing for those students. However, the majority of the students at the school may be performing fine. In this case, the No Child Left Behind Act serves to meet the needs of the minority, which can often be neglected. It may not mean that the entire school is low-performing, however.

In other cases, schools may try to manipulate the numbers. There have been cases of students being suspended shortly before the test is to take place, so that their scores will not bring down those of the group as a whole. When testing levels are flexible, as they can be in the case of special education students, administrators may try to fix the paperwork so that the student will be scheduled to take an easier test than some of his peers.

How does high-stakes testing affect teachers?

Many teachers are happy to see clear guidelines, but few enjoy teaching to a test, which is one of the byproducts of this social experiment. Depending on the district, and the administrators at the school, teachers may be pressured to teach only the competencies that will be covered on the test, or to devote a great deal of class time to test preparation. In addition, some districts have teachers' individual class scores available on their intranet for any other district employee to see. This particularly creates a lot of stress for the teacher who is teaching a 9th grade remedial English class, as opposed to a teacher who is teaching the 11th grade honors English class. Many teachers complain about the lack of time for students to engage in discussion, complete class projects and participate in other activities that would increase the depth of the curriculum. Some teachers cite high-stakes testing as a major contribution to burnout and leave the field.

How can high stakes testing effect my child?

Your child may need to pass a test in order to pass to the next grade or to graduate. It is important that you understand the specific regulations regarding testing in your state, and to stay in contact with your child's teachers so that your child is not one who is left behind by the testing process.

You may want to ask your child how often his class does practice tests or test preparation. This may vary from school to school, depending on how concerned the school's administrators are about the school's score as a whole. Different schools handle the issue in different ways. If you are not happy with how your child's school is handling the high-stakes testing issue, you may want to transfer your child to a school with better administration, or to a private school that is not held accountable to the No Child Left Behind law.

High-stakes testing is not the only way to find out if a school is providing good services. Ask to see the percentage of students who go on to higher education if you are dealing with a high school. Don't hesitate to speak to students and parents who are affiliated with the school. Make sure that tests that are administered to your child provide you with valuable information about your child's progress and benefit your child directly, and not another person's agenda. Continue to educate yourself about his very important issue, as it affects the future of education. Speak to your senators and representatives about any changes you would like to see implemented. As with any school-related issue, teachers and parents need to provide their input on how related laws are implemented.

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