A Look At High-Stakes Tests: The Pro’s and Cons

Education today is run rampant with evaluations. Classroom tests, national standardized assessments, even scores that reflect international performance – students from elementary school through high school face all of them. Of the most important of today’s educational assessments are a set known as “high-stakes tests.”

High-stakes tests are assessments that have a high-impact outcome, where, for example, passing the test would allow the student entry into a grade or permission to graduate. The assessments that are part of NCLB are considered standardized high-stakes tests. The act states that if state-run schools are to receive federal funding, students should be given (and must pass) certain assessments. Ultimately, students’ futures and school funding rely on these standardized test scores. Some subjects, such as foreign languages and humanities, are not included in the tests.

Those in favor of high-accountability tests claim that there is no serious method of measuring student achievement other than standardized tests. They assert that this is the best way that equality in education can be ensured across the United States. Supporters cite the fact that NCLB was created to raise the standards of achievement and close the gap between students of different races and class distinctions. NCLB has gained many advocates in congress, who all make the point that failure should also be measured, to detect areas that need improvement.

On closer examination, a clear gap between reality and federal educational goals still exists. NCLB might be overlooking the disparity that exists in America’s educational system, because many students are not reaching the standards that the tests are evaluating. Some of the reasons people oppose high-stakes tests include:

1. Unfairness

The same test is administered in a well-supplied, sophisticated school and in an under-funded, ill-equipped school, and all students are expected to measure equally regardless of race, poverty, access to resources, and language differences. Wealthier students may not be more intelligent than deprived ones, but they are more likely to have access to resources that contribute to the acquisition of the competencies that are required to pass the tests. National data show that minority groups tend to have a higher chance of failing high-stakes standardized tests.

2. Dropouts increase

High-stakes testing is likely to result in increased numbers of dropouts among less-confident students or students with special needs. To make a good impression and avoid being sanctioned by the state, teachers tend to focus on students who are likely to reach proficiency on standardized tests. They often forsake weak students, who are at risk of becoming dropouts. The National Research Council found that low-performing elementary and secondary school students who are not promoted do not achieve better standards the following year. In fact, they generally become resentful and, as a result, are much worse off. Some states have chosen to implement high-stakes tests as a requirement for graduation, which has resulted in a higher dropout rate.

For example, in Massachusetts, 71% of African American students graduated the year before the tests became a graduation requirement, but only 59.5% did so the next year. For Latino students in Massachusetts, the rate went from 54% to 45%, and for Asian students, it dropped from 89% to 81%.

3. Redefinition of Teaching

Teaching is now inclined to focus on preparation of students for these tests. This technique may show an increase in high grades, but it does not ensure acquisition of knowledge. And subject syllabuses suffer changes. Some subjects are clearly given less attention in these evaluations and are sacrificed in favor of extra time for test practice. A study by the Center on Education Policy found that about 62% of school districts increased the amount of time spent in elementary schools on English, language arts, or math (these are the subjects to be tested by order of the state), while 44% of districts cut time on science, social studies, art, music, physical education, lunch, or recess. Teachers admitted that they spent a fair amount of their time instructing for test-taking skills and using mock exams for this purpose, instead of applying formative assessment techniques to gain an understanding of student motivation, level of knowledge, abilities, or grasp of the subject. Research has shown that when teachers devote more time to test preparation, students may become more efficient on standardized tests, but other test scores often drop.

4. Low Reliability

Even expert-constructed tests may contain flaws. Sometimes responses are keyed in incorrectly and not revised, which may result in inaccurate scores.

5. Teacher Stress

Studies have shown that 7 in 10 teachers have complained about becoming stressed due to test-preparation activities, which are generally nonmotivational and not aligned with the objectives of a class. The incessant drills students have to endure make them more inclined to lose interest and complain about boredom, fear, or isolation. Preparing students for a test is not the only stressing factor; teachers must guarantee that students are sufficiently prepared to face the tests and that all the techniques have been mastered. Many teachers have become frustrated by not being able to practice high-quality teaching and have therefore chosen to leave state-run schools and apply to private schools, where high-stakes tests do not rule the curriculum.

In the midst of all this controversy, teachers at state-run schools need to find ways to meet federal requirements while fostering motivation and learning among students. Many may contend that high-stakes tests are not efficient or reliable enough to measure student achievement; however, they continue to be part of teacher concerns these days. In the light of their reality, teachers have come to terms with NCLB, by finding ways of engaging students, combined with mastery of the material and techniques that will help when preparing students for standardized exams.

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