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High Stakes Testing_ Is it worth the gamble


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High Stakes Testing: Is it worth the gamble?

             Jennifer D. Smith

              Prescott College
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                           High Stakes Testing: Is it worth the gamble?

        Recently there has been a push for high stakes testing in our public education

system. The rationale for such testing is that if we raise our standards and hold schools

and teachers accountable then our students will end up performing better educationally.

Ideally this education reform plan was intended to “provide every boy and girl in

America with a high-quality education—regardless of his or her income, ability or

background” (Paige, 2002). However worthy and well intentioned this goal may be,

research has found that high stakes testing may not be the solution. It may, in fact, be

contributing to the problem. Teachers have found themselves curtailing their curriculum

to assure that the required standards have been met, and have found that there is little or

no time left for any of the remaining valuable, life skills instruction. The consensus is

unanimous that something must be done to bridge the gap between our high achieving

students and those who are not meeting the mark (the majority of which have proven to

be minority students and students who come from low-income homes). Innovative

teaching practices which balance rote learning and the learning of higher-order thinking

skills, as well as a multicultural curriculum could do more to reach those populations and

provide all students with the tools they need to be successful in their educations and in

their lives.

        Recently an in-depth, scholarly study was conducted on 18 states to see how the

high-stakes testing had affected student learning (Amrein, 2002). This study did not use

the scores from the actual high-stakes tests in order to determine student learning, but

rather they used the results from the ACT, SAT, NAEP and AP tests because they
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covered the same domain as the state’s high-stakes tests and would therefore be useful in

making a comparison of data (p.1). The “uncertainty principle” was what the researchers

used to interpret the data. This principle states “The more important that any quantitative

social indicator becomes in social decision-making, the more likely it will be to distort

and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor” (p. 2). The evidence gathered in

this study showed that the tests effect on student learning either remained status quo, or

went down in schools that had been instituting the high-stakes testing policies (p. 2). The

researchers concluded:

       Analyses of these data reveal that if the intended goal of high-stakes testing policy

       is to increase student learning, then that policy is not working. While a state’s

       high-stakes test may show increased scores, there is little support in these data

       that such increases are anything but the result of test preparation and/or the

       exclusion of students from the testing process. These distortions, we argue, are

       predicted by the uncertainty principle. The success of a high-stakes testing policy

       is whether it affects student learning, not whether it can increase student scores on

       a particular test. If student learning is not affected the validity of a state’s test is

       in question (p. 2).

       The important thing to recognize is the unintended consequences that result from

implementing a high-stakes testing policy such as the narrowing of the curriculum so that

teachers can teach to the test, the increase in drop-out rates, and the higher rate of holding

students back a grade because of “poor performance” on the tests (p. 11). Such

unintended consequences have a huge impact on poor and minority students in particular.
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Consider Arizona’s AIMS (Arizona Instrument to Measure Standards) for example. In

1999, Ninety-seven percent of African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans

failed the math section of the AIMS test (p. 11). The same problem occurred in Texas in

1997 where one sophomore out of every two who were either African American,

Mexican American, or economically disadvantaged were able to pass all the sections of

the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) (p. 12). In both of these instances, the

European American students passed with a higher success rate. When failures such as

these are attached to a penalty for poor performance, the chasm between students with

varying backgrounds widens and the pressures on these students and their teachers


       A possible reason for this discrepancy is the fact that teachers are being forced to

narrow their teaching strategies in order to cram their students full of the facts they need

to know in order to be ready for the test. When teachers are so preoccupied with teaching

to the test, it is impossible to make the time to adapt lessons to enhance learning for their

multicultural students. Research has proven that a teacher must consider the diverse

backgrounds of each of their students and plan to implement teaching techniques that will

be both sensitive and inclusive of the various cultures each student represents. In the

book entitled Teaching American Indian students, the author, Jon Reyhner (1992) stated

that “Good teaching requires that teachers understand and respect the individuality of all

children. Neither appreciation nor respect are possible without knowing the children’s

cultural and environmental backgrounds” (p. 14).
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       There are many social influences that shape a student’s perceptions and learning

styles. For example, research indicates that many of the Native American populations

from the Southwestern United States are predominantly visual learners (p.84). This

population would be more inclined to study a problem out rather than to jump right in and

take a risk (p. 83). These tendencies stem from the social mores that exist in their culture

where one would be ridiculed if they took a risk and failed. An observant teacher who

recognizes such tendencies, realizes from where they stem, and does not feel restricted by

the confines of teaching to the standards, would carry out teaching strategies that would

first “assess students’ preferred ways of learning and the way(s) in which student

behaviors change from situation to situation” (p. 93). Next that teacher would “plan

learning experiences that address conceptual goals or skills or other objectives that

incorporate the students’ preferred way of learning using teaching methods, incentives,

materials, and situations that are planned according to student preferences” (p. 93).

Later, as the year goes on the teacher will “plan and implement student participation in

learning experiences that require behaviors the student has previously avoided” (p. 93).

These types of behaviors would only be introduced one at a time, gradually, and in the

midst of other familiar, preferred activities so that the student could continue to feel


       To have the teachers of our nation be as responsive to students’ needs as this

would be ideal. However, with the push for high-stakes testing, a teacher’s ability to

adapt their lessons to suit the needs of their multicultural students is diminished. When

teachers are preoccupied with standardized achievement scores, their focus might not
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lend itself to making such beneficial adaptations crucial to student success. There are

also many vital subjects such as social skills, environmental awareness, and cultural

competence that need to be taught in our schools if we expect our students to ever be

exposed to their concepts and practices, but if teachers are preoccupied with teaching to

the standards these subjects will be crowded out of their curriculum.

       In the book titled The educated child: a parent’s guide from preschool through

eighth grade, Bennett et al. (1999) assert that children must be taught such personal traits

as “responsibility, self-discipline, and perseverance” in order to achieve their greatest

potential in school (p. 67). The authors conducted a study of many teachers and schools

and recorded that the majority of teachers told them much of their class time is spent

“raising children”. Due to shortcomings in the home, teachers are finding themselves

teaching hygiene, manners, rudimentary respect to the rights and property of others,

counseling children of divorce, teaching the facts of life, teaching conflict resolution,

etc… all the while that they are expected to be teaching the fundamentals of reading,

writing, multiplying and dividing (p.16). It is the stand of the authors that since students

only spend 10% of their life from birth to age 18 in school, it is not enough time to teach

both basic socialization and basic academics within the school setting; therefore, it is up

to parents to bring up their children with a set of moral values that will prepare them to

meet their education with enthusiasm and the skills necessary to succeed (p. 17).

       It is true that a teacher’s time in a student’s life is limited, and that the teacher’s

primary responsibility lies with the teaching of academics; however, it is equally true that

if success is to be found in the school both for the teachers and for the students, some
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social skills are going to have to be taught within the school because in today’s homes

more often than not, these values are not being taught. In their book entitled How to talk

so kids can learn at home and at school, Adele Faber, Elaine Mazlish, Lisa Nyberg, and

Rosalyn Anstine Templeton (1995) explained that we have an “additional responsibility

to today’s generation of children” (p.16). They further explained that:

       Never before have so many young people been exposed to so many images of

       casual cruelty. Never before have they witnessed so many vivid demonstrations

       of problems being solved by beatings or bullets or bombs. Never before has there

       been such an urgent need to provide our children with a living model of how

       differences can be resolved with honest and respectful communication. That’s the

       best protection we can give them against their own violent impulses. When the

       inevitable moments of frustration and rage occur, instead of reaching for a

       weapon, they can reach for the words they’ve heard from the important people in

       their lives. (pp. 16-17)

It is clear that we are not dealing with an ideal world. The audience for Bennett et al’s

book (1999) are parents who actually are taking an active role in their child’s education

and therefore would benefit from the advice to train their children in social values. The

rest of the children of the world may not be so lucky as to have parents that are as

involved in their educations. Therefore, it would be more beneficial to our nation if

teachers would assume that role of social trainers as well as academic trainers if all

children are to be given the opportunity to learn the social values and skills necessary to

be successful in school and ultimately in life.
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       Along with social training, the youth of our nation have a need to be taught

cultural competence. Cultural competence is “the ability to recognize cultural

differences, rather than judging another culture by the norms of your own” (Agyeman,

2001, p. 1). A teacher can express through word and deed kindness and respect for

students of all backgrounds. Teachers can also take time to teach students about various

cultural norms and how they shape the beliefs of the people who are raised within those

cultures. It is worthwhile not only to teach students about various cultures, but it is

equally as important to encourage students to learn about their own heritage and to learn

how their beliefs are influenced by their culture. “Being culturally competent does not

mean giving up your own values” (p.1). When students can recognize who they are and

where their beliefs stem from, they can then begin to branch out and explore various

cultures and recognize there is more than one way to view things. They will have the

opportunity to realize there is value found in all cultures. The main goal of a cultural

competence curriculum is “to promote cultural awareness and sensitivity among all

students, which will lead to the appreciation of and respect for one’s own and others’

cultures” (Reyhner, 1992, p.20).

       There are learning theories in the educational world that lend themselves to

effective instruction practices that, if proactively combined, can satisfy both the need to

meet the academic standards as well as the need to meet the social and emotional needs

of our students. In an article entitled: “Alternatives in education: An exploration of

learner-centered, progressive, and holistic education”, R.A. Martin, Ph.D. (2002)
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discussed four orientations of education which she termed “transmission”, “transaction”,

“self-direction”, and “transformation”. For the purposes of this paper, the first two

orientations are of particular interest. Within the transmission orientation of education,

education is thought of as “the process of teachers transmitting knowledge, beliefs, values

that are accepted by society. Students are the recipients of information, and learning is

the process of memorizing information or acquiring skills” (p. 13). This orientation is

related to the traditional method of teaching and learning we are most familiar with. On

the other hand, the transaction orientation asserts that “education is the process of

experimental problem solving, in which teachers help students learn the scientific method

through application. Whereas the teachers were seen as the authority in the transmission

approach, in this approach they are guides who encourage students in dialoguing,

questioning, and engaging in thoughtful reflection” (p. 13)

       A careful consideration of both these orientations of education would show that

both have merit and each has a purpose. As Bennett et al. (1999) expressed, “there is a

solid core of fundamental knowledge that does not change much from year to year or

even generation to generation” (p. 589). If it is this type of knowledge that a teacher is

trying to convey, they are leaning towards the “transmission" orientation where they are

trying to “transmit” the information to their students. Conversely, more progressive

teachers lean towards the “transaction” orientation where students “learn how to learn”

(p. 593). These students are given opportunities to formulate questions about the world

around them and then do research and experiment to find the answers essentially on their

own. Some teachers lean more heavily towards one orientation than the other. If your
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main concern is to teach to the standardized tests, then the transmission orientation would

be your focus. If you are concerned more with students learning how to acquire

knowledge and skills, then the transaction orientation would be your main focus.

         With the push for accountability and high stakes testing, the transmission

orientation seems to be the only option if teachers and schools want to make the grade.

There are some who are strongly opposed to this approach to learning. Opponents have


         Today, government officials, along with leaders of corporations, foundations,

         universities, and other institutions, determine what all students “need” to know,

         and this becomes educational policy, expressed in standards, state-mandated

         textbooks, high stakes testing and relentless control over teaching and learning.

         (Martin, 2002, p. 13)

In an article expressing his opposition to the newly mandated “tougher standards”, Alfie

Kohn (2003) suggests that teachers, “should do what is necessary to prepare students for

the tests—and then get back to the real learning” (p. 1). He asserts that when teachers are

forced to “teach to the test” their curriculum is prescribed, and there is not a whole lot of

room left for creativity in teaching and learning. Kohn goes on to say that

“’accountability’ usually turns out to be a code for tighter control over what happens in

classrooms by people who are not in classrooms—and it has approximately the same

effect on learning that a noose has on breathing” (p. 3).

         One teaching strategy that would lend itself to the transaction orientation has been

termed as “discovery learning”. Reyhner (1992) asserted that with discovery learning
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“both students and teachers have acknowledged contributions to make what is learned.

No one comes with nothing; everyone comes to the classroom with personal, social, and

cultural-linguistic resources from which others can benefit” (p. 127). Such a learning

environment would be one where “learning is collaborative and interactive; the teacher’s

role is not to transmit a predetermined body of knowledge, but to ensure that the learning

environment supports students in giving meaning to their experiences and in

communicating those meanings to others.”

       Bennett et al. cautioned that behind the “fine-sounding phrase [discovery

learning] hides a bushel of mischief” (1999, p. 592). He continued:

               This view of education is seductive. It sounds so natural, energetic and

               ambitious. Taken in moderation, it makes sense. As we all know the

               lessons we figure out for ourselves tend to sink in deepest and stick with

               us longest. It is also true that there are some topics, subjects, and

               assignments where discovery learning is important. A lab experiment in

               science, for example, is a form of discovery learning. So is making a map

               of the school grounds, and collecting and classifying leaves. A good

               education obviously includes such activities… But discovery learning has

               real limitations in practice when schools try to turn it into the main way

               children learn academic lessons. (p. 592)

We can learn from this that although discovery learning has its positive applications in

teaching such things as science and geography, and even, as we have previously
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discussed, the teaching of students with multicultural backgrounds, it is not a suitable

teaching style for every subject to be taught.

       Supporters of the heightened standards and accountability argue that there is

nothing wrong with teaching the core curriculum. They propose that there is a core

curriculum of knowledge that every child should learn by certain bench marks. They do

not argue that higher level thinking is unimportant. Instead, they assert, (and research by

cognitive psychologists confirms) that:

       Highly skilled intellectual competence comes after, not before, you know a lot of

       “mere facts”. In order to be a critical, independent thinker, in order to firm up

       those higher-order thinking skills so beloved of education experts, you need a

       considerable amount of knowledge. The more you know, the better you’re able to

       learn. For example, students grasp the meaning of what they’re reading much

       better if they already have some background knowledge to apply to that material.

       (Bennett, p. 589)

        What if you realize that both orientations are equally important for a child’s

education? If you are like many progressive teachers today who realize that the recent

standardized testing policies are here to stay, at least for now, then you also realize that a

union of the two orientations must be achieved to be sure that nothing important is left

out of our students’ educations. There is so much more than the basic core knowledge

that our students need to learn while in school that it would do our nation a disservice to

overlook these important curriculum in the name of higher standards in education. If our
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attention turns from all that is important in education to teaching just what we need to

know to be successful on a “high-stakes” test, then a lot will be lost in education. If we

can make time to teach basic social skills that our students are not getting at home,

students will perform better at school both socially and emotionally. If we can take time

to teach cultural competence to students while they are young they will be able to not

only embrace the culture from which their belief systems stem, but they will also be more

likely to be accepting of others and able to appreciate the diversity of their classmates.

We can teach these principles through various teaching methods such as discovery

learning where our students will find success through higher level thinking and decision

making strategies. We can continue to teach the basic core knowledge that has proven to

be a good foundation for education, and our students will find success when it comes to

standardized testing time. When we can look at our students as a whole person and

impart to them all of the skills and knowledge that they need to be successful in life we

will heal our schools and our students’ successes will be our own.
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Agyeman, Dr. J. (2001). Steps to becoming culturally competent communicators.

       Human Nature, 6, 1-2. Retrieved July 26, 2003 from


Amerin, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student

       learning [Education policy analysis archives]. Retrieved July 26, 2003 from


Bennett, W.J., Finn, C. E., Jr., & Cribb, J.T., Jr. (1999). The educated child: A parent’s

       guide from preschool through eighth grade. New York: The Free Press.

Faber, A., Mazlish, E., Nyberg, L., & Templeton, R. A. (1995). How to talk so kids can

       learn at home and at school. New York: Rawson Associates.

Kohn, A. (2003). The case against "tougher standards". Retrieved July 26, 2003 from


Martin, R. A. (2002). Alternatives in education: An exploration of learner-centered,

       progressive, and holistic education. Paths of learning, 1-24. Retrieved July 26,

       2003 from http://www.pathsoflearning.com/library/AERA2002.cfm

Paige, R. (2002, April). Welcome letter [U.S. Department of Education website ED.gov].

       Retrieved October 10, 2003 from


Reyhner, J. (1992). Teaching American Indian students. Norman: University of


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