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The Failure of High Stakes Testing

Monday, May 11, 2015  
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By Scott Phillipps, Head of Houston Academy, Dothan AL

“High stakes” tests have taken different forms in different states, but primarily, they involve standardized tests that students have to pass in order to allow them to move on to the next grade level, graduate from high school, or pass a given class. To be clear, these exams do not typically comprise any percentage of a student’s grade in a class; these tests are the sole criteria used to measure student mastery and proficiency.

I believe that our nations’ high stakes testing regime has had a crippling effect on our nation’s schools and has harmed our children. It’s been disheartening to teachers and administrators, but it’s also caused many school systems to focus on teaching to the tests instead of teaching children. The pressure to have students perform well on standardized tests has led to widespread cheating by teachers and administrators across the country. In fact, there is strong evidence that some sort of cheating or score misrepresentation has occurred in 48 out of 50 states (Beckett, 2013).

The preponderance of educational literature has been highly critical of the federal No Child Left Behind Law [NCLB], which required that states institute high-stakes testing. The literature has pointed out that NCLB was an unfunded mandate based on faulty assumptions about teaching and learning; that it was antithetical to all philosophical dispositions towards a more democratic leadership style; that it ignored the possible contributions of mixed methods or qualitative studies; that it had the unintended consequence of increasing dropout rates, narrowing curricula, and discouraging good teachers; and that many of the statistics on which it was based were not accurate (Amrein & Berliner, 2003; Chatteriji, 2000; Jones, 2004; Mathis, 2003; Neuman, 2003; Slavin, 2001; Wheelock, 2003 ).

In actuality, the testing movement is working under the implicit assumption that test score indicators are the only true and “scientific” way to measure learning outcomes – ignoring all recent research on the effectiveness of constructivist pedagogy; ignoring the realities of multiple intelligences; and ignoring the truth that, by their very nature, standardized tests are pedantic, rudimentary, and limiting. Furthermore, standardized tests were never intended to decide if one went from the 8th grade to the 9th (Ghezzi, 2005). The tests were supposed to be “used to determine how best to teach kids” (Ghezzi, 2005), not to narrowly define what learning is and punish those who cannot operate within that narrow definition. Moreover, in a norm-referenced test, won't half of our children always be below average? This, after all, is not Lake Wobegon.

I understand that many state graduation tests are criterion-referenced tests – that is, they are tests designed to determine whether a student has mastered certain material. However, many of the principles of these tests are based on perceived problems which become evident through the results of norm-referenced tests, and many of these state tests are still culturally and socioeconomically biased, narrow, and invidious. Proponents of NCLB and the state legislatures generally make the assumption that the proverbial playing field is level, when clearly it is not (Neuman, 2003). For example, children from high socioeconomic status families are exposed to thirty million more words before kindergarten than children from low socioeconomic status families, and that gap does not disappear in one year; it is cumulative (Neuman, 2003). There is nothing in a state-mandated test that is going to get our poor and underprivileged children up to the level of more affluent children before they enter kindergarten, much less the 9th grade. 

To this point, there’s an old Iowa farm adage that says, “You can't fatten a cow by weighing it.” In other words, it's one thing to say, “Our students are failing;” it’s another thing to figure out what to do about it. Even if you assume that criterion reference tests identify the problems correctly, they do not begin to offer us a solution.

What is most troubling to me, though, is the research that shows that since the passage of NCLB, American students’ creativity has plummeted. In 2010, Newsweek published an edition of their magazine titled “The Creativity Crisis.”  It argues that what has made America great and economically successful has been our ability to be creative. Moreover, the world is facing environmental and social problems on a global scale. These problems require leaders with an ability to come up with creative solutions to complex problems. These problems also require an ability to build consensus and work collaboratively. We have traditionally been a country of entrepreneurs and innovators. America has led the world in scientific, technological, and artistic endeavors. While children in China were learning how to take tests, American children were learning how to think. The research tells us that as a direct result of our “drill and kill” daily drudgery and emphasis on standardized test scores, our schools have now become a place (in the words of Pat Bassett) where “creativity goes to hide.”  They have become a place where, by fourth grade, most students wallow in boredom and misery.

While researching the Common Core Standards, I read a letter to the editor in the New York Times written by Howard Miller, Chair of the Department of Secondary Education at Mercy College School of Education. He said:

The sticking point rests not with the standards, but with the ways in which we attempt to measure student learning through a combination of multiple-choice test items and short essays.

Learning is a very complex human enterprise. It is a building up of a depth and breadth of knowledge and skills over time through a process that includes trial and error, interpretation and analysis, “aha” moments of discovery, and applying what we have learned to different situations.

Standardized tests are flawed because they decontextualize learning and attempt to break it up into tiny measurable segments. With learning, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts that we do measure.

Simply put, I'm not convinced that ANY of our standardized tests accurately measure if a student has what it takes to be successful in work and life. For example, does the ACT measure persistence? Resiliency? Emotional intelligence? Does it adequately address the competencies (“6 C’s”) that have been identified as the core facets of 21st century learning: collaboration, communication, creativity, critical thinking, cross-cultural competency, and character?

On a national scale, the high-stakes testing movement works to absolve society or the broader educational system of any real accountability for the root problems of poverty, malnutrition, housing, and unequal opportunity. We know what our root social problems are, and they are not going to be solved by giving students a test, the results of which will be used to hold them back a grade level, fire teachers, or shut down a school. 

We know that education is the key to opportunity in any Western country. Many well-meaning educators support a high-stakes testing system in our country with the hope of raising standards and holding our teachers and students accountable. Our teachers and students should be held accountable. A standardized test, however, is just one measure on one day and neither an effective tool for accountability, nor an accurate gauge of overall learning (Ghezzi, 2005).

For full references for this article, visit Scott Phillipps' blog

Scott Phillipps is the Head of School of Houston Academy in Dothan AL. He can be reached at


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