High-stakes tests: bad for students, teachers, and education in general.

The ongoing battle between reformers and advocates of public education generally centers around one thing: the use of standardized testing to evaluate teacher effectiveness. This practice is particularly appealing to taxpayers who decry teachers and public education in general, mostly because to someone unfamiliar with what real learning looks like, it sounds like a good idea.

Here’s an incomplete list of the problems associated with high-stakes testing.

Problems with standardized tests in theory

  • Testing companies have one primary goal: to make profit.  The National Board of Educational Testing and Public Policy at Boston College estimates that today’s testing market is worth anywhere from $400 to $700 million.  What’s interesting is that many people who scream that testing is necessary to hold teachers accountable are the ones who also claim that teachers are greedy and overpaid.  What they fail to understand is that districts pay testing companies millions with taxpayer dollars–so these complainers themselves are helping line the pockets of corporations.  
  • Money districts spend on testing could be much better spent on materials, personnel, and programs that truly help students achieve.
  • High-stakes tests send students the message that tests are more important than actual learning and that if something isn’t on a test it’s not worth learning.
  • Standardized testing generally assesses students in reading and math; other subjects are largely ignored, which sends the message that those subjects are somehow less important.
  • Overemphasis on testing results in a narrowing of the curriculum; art, music, and elective programs are cut because they do not help improve test scores.
  • Administering one test to all students promotes a one-size-fits-all educational climate that ignores differences in learning styles and limits curricula.
  • Student-teacher relationships suffer when school becomes a depersonalized environment where test scores must be the primary focus.
  • Standardized testing leads to loss of teacher autonomy and a standardized curriculum within any given school. Teaching will become a profession that’s staffed by novice teachers who are willing to follow a script–and educators who once enjoyed autonomy, and whose students benefitted from instruction and assessments that were tailored to their specific needs, will flee the profession.
  • Promoting expansion of standardized testing will lead to a nationally-dictated curriculum (think Common Core–and realize that David Coleman, its chief architect, is the President of the College Board) that dictates what students should be learning and when and limits schools’ freedom to design and articulate course structure.  For example, some schools teach American Literature in 10th grade; some teach it in 12th.  Testing needs to reflect students’ age, and ultimately, schools will have to redesign programs of studies to match tests.
  • The number of instructional days devoted to testing has grown exponentially–one NY teacher estimates that 40 of her 180 instructional days are devoted to testing and test prep.
  • Districts will be forced to find ways to pay for standardized tests–and all the materials and technology that go with them.–which will lead to cuts in staffing and programs.
  • The testing craze is being pushed because of the myth that United States students lag behind those in other countries–and standardized testing does nothing to address the root of the education problems in America: poverty. Promoting failed education policies that  widen achievement gaps will certainly not help this problem.

Problems with the actual creation, administration, content, and scoring of tests

  • Tests are designed by corporations, not teachers, and are often field-tested on students, during instructional time, who are used as guinea pigs–rather than on students who participate in paid focus groups.
  • Students often leave tests stressed and feeling that the reading passages or questions were unfair or ridiculous: such was the case in NY, when students were confused because “pineapples don’t have sleeves.”
  • Teachers and administrators are not allowed to see the test on test day, nor are students permitted to discuss the tests after they’ve finished taking them.  Such secrecy gives testing companies too much power and authority, and hinders efforts by teachers and parents to understand what the students are actually being tested on. Such secrecy helps testing companies reuse test questions by selling them for profit.
  • Tests are scored by testing companies–mostly by computers–and students, parents, and teachers are at the mercy of a companies with little (if any) transparency whose primary interests are profits.
  • Testing giants like Pearson are hiring essay-scorers from sites like Craigslist and temp agencies like the Kelly Staffers. Scorers need not have a background in education or previous experience scoring essays–and do not need to prove that they themselves are effective writers.
  • Errors in scoring: recently, Pearson made egregious errors in scoring that kept thousands of NY students out of a gifted program–and this mistake was certainly not Pearson’s first offense. Also, McGraw-Hill‘s errors and delay in scoring the NY Regents exam left students wondering whether or not they would be able to graduate high school this year.
  • Problems on test-day: after this year’s exam, AP students reported that a problem on the AB Calculus exam caused TI-89 calculators to freeze during the test. Also, students in four states were kicked offline during a high-stakes standardized test.

Problems for students

  • If high-stakes tests are used solely to evaluate teachers and have no impact on students’ grades–and unless they are a requirement for graduation–students have no incentive to try their best or take the test seriously.
  • Many students (particularly at the elementary level) experience test anxiety, and some even make themselves physically sick because of the importance placed on these tests by school personnel (because test results determine whether or not teachers keep their jobs, whether schools get funding, etc.).
  • Students learn to dread tests and negatively associate content with meaningless assessments.
  • The importance that’s placed on high-stakes tests sends the message to children that test scores are the only measure of their intelligence–which is damaging to a child’s self-worth.
  • Testing and test prep take time away from creative, ruminative, enriching learning experiences in the classroom.
  • Testing eliminates choice in reading and writing exercises, as students are forced to write in a methodical, robotic format.
  • Our nation’s most at-risk students will be subjected to mass school closures if their standardized test scores, which are largely indicative of family income and not intelligence or academic capabilities, are low.
  • High-achieving students will become increasingly obsessed with test scores and other competitive measures–rather than by actual learning–and more and more high-achievers will suffer from anxiety and stress associated with such an environment. This is a well-documented problem in China and other nations whose students produce high scores in international tests.
  • Students ask “is this going to be on the test?” and if not, they don’t see the value in learning it.
  • Students dread school, as it becomes a depersonalized, clinical environment. In short, they learn for the wrong reasons and lose the joy of learning for the sake of learning.
  • Many districts make placement decisions based solely on standardized test scores, a practice that only considers a student’s performance on one assessment.
  • More and more students are being taught by novice teachers, many of whom themselves are products of No Child Left Behind, who think test-prep is appropriate and synonymous with a good education.
  • Students associate scores on standardized tests with their worth as children. Should kindergarteners be worried about whether they’re “college or career ready”?
  • The idea that standardized tests measure “college and career readiness” perverts the purpose of learning and promotes a very narrow message regarding what is socially acceptable–and what is not–in terms of a child’s future.
  • Many districts are pushing technology on even their youngest students–but not so students explore technological capabilities: so they can have the keyboarding and mouse-manipulating skills to take online tests.

Problems with rating teachers’ effectiveness by using test scores

  • Test scores are largely affected by factors beyond teachers’ control: attendance, health factors, the extent to which a child’s family values and stresses academics, class size, students with special needs, length of time students have been in district/how frequently their family moves, etc.
  • It is inherently unfair to evaluate some teachers (those who teach tested grades and subjects like English and math) and not others; this will breed resentment among teachers and discourage aspiring teachers from entering the profession.
  • Evaluating teachers using student test scores will create resentment among teachers: who gets the gifted students?  who gets the lower-achieving students? who gets small class sizes? Scheduling alone will pit teachers against one another.
  • This kind of teacher evaluation hinders collaboration and turns teaching into a competition; this type of climate is damaging to school environments and to students. (This is an inevitable result of a program that is inherently promotes cutthroat competition: Race to the Top.)
  • Teachers’ creative licenses will be stifled, and they will be forced to “teach to the test” so students know what to expect on high-stakes tests.
  • Student scores can be affected by teachers in disciplines other than those being tested; for example, students with the same math teacher might have two different chemistry teacher, and those chemistry teachers might teach math differently.  Same goes for language arts; students with the same English teacher might have two different history teachers–one of whom requires more writing than the other.
  • There’s not enough research to show that measuring teacher effectiveness using test scores even works; in fact, there’s much research to show the opposite.
  • Schools generally have no control or authority over what students do outside of schools. Students who abuse substances, for example, stifle their own ability to focus, to think clearly and analytically, and to study.  However, test score-based teacher evaluation ignores such issues.
  • Some students, regardless of the quality  and efforts of the teacher in the front of the room, are simply unwilling to learn.
  • Test consistency: a 150 (theoretical score on a theoretical test) on a 3rd grade test and a 150 on a 4th grade often don’t mean the same thing; it is virtually impossible to create tests that sequentially measure the same level of learning on a consistent basis.  This is especially true for language arts tests, which are largely subjective.
  • The margin of error on VAMs is large; teachers who earn high ratings one year can earn poor ratings the following year, or vice versa (which suggests what we already know: that class composition affects scores greatly).
  • Damian Betebenner, SGP (an alternative to the VAM) designer, cautions that his system is not meant to evaluate teachers/help districts make personnel decisions and notes that it does not provide an explanation for the cause of growth.
  • Seemingly-proportional gains in a student’s raw scores do not mean the same thing at all score points–so SGPs oversimplify and incorrectly decree that a ten-point gain at any score point, for example, means the same thing for all students.  (Here’s a wonderful post from Jersey Jazzman that explains this phenomenon.)
  • Ultimately,  is impossible to determine teachers’ effectiveness by using a system that is inherently flawed, imprecise, and counterproductive to the efforts of educators.

It’s unfortunate that reformers and profiteering corporations have such damaging influence in public schools.  Even more unfortunate is that this is an incomplete list.  Please add what I’ve neglected in the comments section–and feel free to share with simpletons who criticize teachers and public education and ignorantly think that the testing movement is a good idea.

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