The Rise of High-Stakes Standardized Testing

Illustrations by IVETTE SALOM


In April each year, one phrase floats around in all the classrooms that almost every student fears: standardized tests. But where did these standardized tests come from, and how did they become what they are now?

In 2001, the United States federal government passed the No Child Left Behind Act, providing states with money for schools and school districts with a high percentage of students from low-income communities under the condition that they set academic standards and give students assessments in order to track their achievement. Eventually, states started using these tests for promoting students to the next grade. Thus, kids who got a low score on these tests would often not be permitted to advance to the next grade or graduate. Likewise, schools that kept failing to meet state and national standards with their students’ scores risked losing funding and sometimes even shutting down. Such consequences of scoring poorly led to these tests being described as “high-stakes.”

These were the first modern high-stakes standardized tests. The assessments test students’ English literacy, math and science skills. In New York State, the standardized tests for grades three to eight consist of three days of math testing and three days of English literacy testing, as well as an added day of science testing for fourth and eighth grade. Each day of testing takes from 70 to 90 minutes, differing by grade. The tests are generally made up of multiple choice, short answer and essay questions.

Supporters of this style of testing claim that it is the best way to track nationwide student progress and keep the same educational standards across the country. However, one of the criticisms of current standardized testing is that because they are high-stakes, they create a lot of stress for the students taking them. This may create invalid results if the student performs worse on the test under stress.

While the debate around high-stakes standardized testing heats up, their effects are being felt by students and teachers as well as their schools and communities across the nation.


Glossary of terms:

curricula: plural term for curriculum, which refers to the subjects taught during a course of study in school

high-stakes: something that has serious consequences for the person or group participating in the activity. High-stakes standardized tests have serious consequences for students who do not score well as they may be prevented from moving to the next grade level or graduating. The stakes are also high for schools that might lose funding if their students score poorly.

socioeconomic: the combination of social and economic factors in a person’s life


The Effects of High-Stakes Standardized Testing on Students
By YUUKI REAL, age 13

Supporters of standardized tests argue that the tests have proven to predict the future performance of students fairly accurately. They also point out that standardized tests can qualify high achievers for college scholarships.

Critics say that tests do not always coincide (match up) with the curriculum taught, resulting in students being unprepared in certain exam sections. Others are concerned that the emphasis placed on test scores lessens the attention on other educational subjects.

Research has demonstrated a continual achievement gap among students from certain ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds. Concerns have been raised that tests are written unfairly, resulting in lower scores for some populations. Families with fewer resources cannot invest as much money and time to prepare their children for the testing as wealthier families can, thereby widening this gap.

No matter the argument, many students react negatively to the immense pressure to do well. Because of stress, results do not always accurately reflect a student’s true learning potential. A fourth and a seventh grader from Ithaca, NY were interviewed and both agreed on one thing: they didn’t feel as though standardized testing contributed to their overall education, nor did they feel it fully evaluated their understanding of the topic.

The fourth grade boy commented that “it doesn’t really feel necessary, and it just gets me stressed out.”


The Effects of High-Stakes Standardized Testing on Teachers
By ROBERT IVKO, age 13

Standardized testing has affected not only students, but teachers as well. With such a high-stakes test, teachers have a lot of pressure on their shoulders for their classes to score well.

This has led to cheating scandals that have increased student’s scores, but lowered the reputation of standardized testing. Recently in Atlanta, thirty-five school employees were charged with tampering with the scores of children. However, after this scandal, parents still fear if their children are doing well on their tests.

There are educators who favor the current system of standardized testing. Some teachers claim that because of standardized testing, students’ scores in school work improve. Education researcher Richard P. Phelps defends the practice of planning lessons around upcoming tests: “If curricula are carefully developed by educators and the test is written with curricula in mind, then teaching to the test means teaching students the knowledge and skills we agree they ought to learn—exactly what our teachers are legally and ethically obligated to do.”

On the other side, Sandy Kress, a former advisor to President Bush, said, “Focusing too much on test scores alone will, in the end, cheat students out of the kind of quality education that sometimes can’t be measured by standardized tests.” Most of the teachers who have recently boycotted these tests agree with Sandy Kress and are stuck explaining to students that standardized testing is not the most important part of their education.


The Effects High-Stakes Standardized Testing on Schools and Communities

Besides assessing students, in many districts, testing is used to indicate how the school is doing based on the overall students’ test scores. Schools that are performing poorly on the state tests are put in difficult circumstances. Many schools are shutting down from loss of funding due to low scores. As a result, some schools have started teaching to the test, which can minimize or eliminate curricula that are not on the test.

Teachers and parents have started boycotting standardized testing for how it forces teachers to teach to the test. Communities are starting to get more involved and some students have started to protest as well. In Chicago, over one hundred students rallied to stop the closing of over fifty schools and demand fewer standardized tests. In response to this growing pressure on schools to raise scores or shut down, Reverend Jesse Jackson Sr. commented, “A school cannot thrive as an oasis in a social desert… Schools cannot bear the blame for all the maladies of poverty, unemployment, danger and pain.”

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