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Effects of High-Stakes Testing in Elementary Schools

Updated on February 17, 2012

High-Stakes Testing in Elementary Schools

Purpose and Introduction

Historical Perspective

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 ushered in a new era in education; one in which high-stakes tests would become a staple in all schools. This decision to make these examinations a component of American education was based in part on political views of conservatives who believed that the United States’ economic power was at risk (Perreault, 2002). This fear led to what is now called the standards movement in education; a crusade that would lead to the rethinking and alteration of numerous state academic standards and the development of a national core set of standards. Nearly all of the fifty states have incorporated high-stakes testing in their schools as a result of this ideology, and schools are now labeled based on their scores on state assessments (e.g., “exemplary,” “satisfactory,” and “low-performing”).

Definitions of Important Terms

A test is considered high-stakes “when its results are used to make important decisions that affect students, teachers, administrators, communities, schools, and districts” (Au, 2007, p. 258). Such verdicts stemming from these examinations could lead to student retention or advancement, educator salary decisions, money disbursement to districts and schools, and some schools being closed. These benefits and consequences lead teachers and administrators to adopt policies to enable their students to achieve passing scores on these tests. Such policies could consist of but are not limited to pedagogical alterations, curriculum changes, changes in instructional time, and elimination of some content areas of study (Perrault, 2002, Fritchett & Heafner, 2010).

An accommodation is an item supplied to students to alleviate a need. Most commonly, accommodations are given to students with disabilities in order to provide them with the means to acquire success. Accommodations typically consist of but are not limited to additional time to complete work, reading aloud, resource guides, and an adult reading instructions, possible answers, or problems to students.

Focus of Review

The purpose of this research study is to investigate the effects of high-stakes testing on students, faculty, administration, and schools, and to determine if this form of examination is appropriate for all students. With teachers being held accountable for the performance of their students, students having their scores on high-stakes tests determine if they will be advanced or retained, and administrators having to answer to communities pertaining to school rankings, it is inevitable that there will be consequences, both positive and negative, to the implementation to state mandated assessments (Jones, 2007).

Why High-Stakes Testing is Important to Me

Having a daughter in the fifth grade, I have seen the stress and altered self-image that aligns with state-mandated testing. The weeks she is tested are difficult for her, and she is a different child when taking the examinations. I have also witnessed the effects of high-stakes testing on teachers. I was placed in a third grade classroom spring quarter of last year, and my mentor teacher (along with the other third grade teacher) demonstrated the stress that is attached to these tests. Administration had forced the third grade teachers to discontinue social studies and science material in their classroom until after the completion of the Ohio Achievement Assessments. My mentor teacher also explained to me the importance of students passing these examinations and her accountability in regards to this. Due to the stress I have perceived in my daughter and in teachers, and the fact that I desire to become a teacher, I wanted to know more about the effects of high-stakes testing.

What We Know

Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Educators

With the advent of the standards movement, states began mandating yearly assessments of students in their schools, and with these examinations came a higher level of accountability for teachers and administrators. Educators were now forced to answer for the performance of their students on standardized tests. Research demonstrates that the effects of this transition on faculty have been widespread. A study by Dr. George Perreault (2002), in which he interviewed teachers about the effects of high-stakes testing in their classrooms, found many traits that changed in educators’ schools. Perreault states that pressure is a constant in an environment of state mandated testing, with the majority of teachers interviewed being able to give the exact date testing would be completed. In a study of counselors in a southern state’s schools, Thorn and Mulvenon (2002) reported that the participants identified the stresses shown by teachers due to state mandated tests. These counselors claimed that, during the weeks before and of testing, they spent the majority of their time dealing with teacher and student stress reduction. Educators also spoke of numerous changes in policies and curriculum in response to the high-stakes examinations, with one stating, “we were told, ‘If it ain’t on the test, don’t teach it’” (p. 706). Perreault also recalls an instance in which a principal directed teachers in his school not to introduce any new material for six weeks leading up to the test. Another theme that came out of these interviews was a feeling of powerlessness and defeat coming from teachers. Teachers claimed that they were never sure if what they were doing was in the best interest of the student’s success.

Brett Jones (2007) furthers this point in his article on the effects of high-stakes testing. Though he does claim that ninety percent of teachers believed that educators should be held accountable for their teaching and student performance, Jones states, “There is strong evidence that high-stakes testing has coerced teachers into aligning their curriculum to the areas tested” (p. 69). Teachers succumb to the pressures of administrators and the public and forego teaching content that will not show up on the state mandated assessments in order to better prepare their students to pass the examinations. Since these high-stakes tests primarily cover reading, writing, and mathematics, subjects such as science, social studies, art, music, and physical education are typically given less instructional time. A study by Fritchett and Heafner (2010) reports that English/language arts and mathematics took up nearly 16 hours of instructional time weekly, while only 2.9 hours was devoted to social studies and only 2.75 hours was devoted to science weekly. Wayne Au (2007), in his study on the effects of high-stakes testing on curricular control, found that there is a “significant relationship between the implementation of high-stakes testing and changes in the content of a curriculum, the structure of knowledge contained within the content, and the types of pedagogy associated with communication of that content” (p. 262). Au also claims that participants in his study reported curricular narrowing to tested subject areas and the elimination of non-tested content.

Effects of High-Stakes Testing on Students

Educators are not the alone in facing the effects of high-stakes tests. The students face as many if not more issues brought on by state-mandated assessments. In the past, the role of education was to prepare students to become active, involved members of the community. Jones (2007) states that “the goal of schooling is being restricted to passing standardized tests” (p. 69). This fact, along with the previously stated curricular changes, can negatively affect students’ learning and understanding of non-tested content. A study by Cankoy and Tut (2005) expounded on this by researching the effects of teaching only tested mathematics material on students. The study found that students who were taught using a test-driven approach were better at routine mathematics material than those students taught using a non-test-driven approach, and there was no difference between the two groups on non-routine math material; however, the study did evidence that teaching only tested material led to students memorizing techniques and prompting on surface facets of problems.

Another effect of high-stakes testing on students is an alteration of self-perception. Students could derive a high or low academic self-image dependent on how they score on state-mandated assessments. In a study on African American students’ self-perceptions tied to their performance on high-stakes tests, Pershey (2010) found that the majority of these students bound their self-images to how they performed on the state mandated tests. Even the students who had success on the examinations were more likely to say they were competent rather than capable. Pershey goes on to state, “Students who perceive themselves as having inadequate abilities may not invest patience and perseverance when difficulties are encountered and may not score up to their potential on testing” (p. 59). A perpetual circle is enacted with regards to state mandated testing, as students derive low self-images when they score poorly on the examinations, and when they take another high-stakes test they are less likely to work hard and be patient when taking the test. This, consequently, could lead to student disengagement and possible drop out of students.

Bullying is another possible effect of high-stakes testing on students. As students and faculty become engrossed in attempts to improve test scores, the focus on negative actions in school takes a back seat. Hazel (2010) performed a study on the links between bullying and state mandated tests. She found that students report in increase in instances of bullying, while teachers report significantly lower occasions of this behavior than students. Hazel documents, “The adults’ focus was on improving scores on the state-mandated standardized achievement tests…The emphasis on performing well on the state standardized tests created stress at multiple levels…The administrators expressed ambivalence between preparing for the state assessment and meeting children’s needs” (p. 7). With less attention paid to negative actions, the effect is a rise in the prevalence of bullying and the like.

Is High-Stakes Testing Good for All Students?

Another question asked with regards to high-stakes testing is if such assessment is adequate for all students, including those with disabilities. In the past, teachers and administrators have identified students as learning disabled in order to avoid the negative impact of them taking the examinations on their schools (Perreault, 2002). At present, there is a movement toward including all students in state-mandated assessments. In a five year longitudinal study, Schulte et al. (2001) reported that the number of students with disabilities taking the state-mandated test increased by eleven percent (from 85% to 96%). The inclusion of these students requires the incorporation of accommodations for these students to achieve success on the examinations. In a study on the effects of such accommodations for high-stakes tests for students with disabilities, Fletcher et al. (2006) state, “Accommodations that benefit students with and without disabilities are of concern because when all students benefit from an accommodation and it is provided only to students with disabilities, the accommodation provides an unfair advantage to those with disabilities” (p. 137). With this in mind, educators must be weary of the accommodations they provide for students with disabilities. In the study, Fletcher et al. used the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) twice on a control group of students with disabilities and without disabilities. The first time they did not provide accommodations to either of the groups, and the second time they provided accommodations to both groups. The accommodations consisted of extending the testing time into two sessions, reading proper nouns to the students, and reading students the stems and possible answers after they had finished reading the passage. The study found that the accommodations benefitted only the students with disabilities, and they brought these students closer to passing scores on the examination. In a study on the effects of two test accommodations on students, Engelhard et al. (2010) reported finding that resource guides used as an accommodation had little effect on test scores of either the control group or students with disabilities, and the use of calculators benefitted both groups when taking high-stakes mathematics tests.

Hintze and Silberglitt (2005) provide a manner in which to identify students who are at risk of failing high-stakes tests in reading or may require accommodations in reading sections of such examinations. The Reading-Curriculum-based measurement (R-CBM) is normalized group of measurement procedures to catalogue performance in reading. The research study that Hintze and Silberglitt performed found that R-CBM can predict performance on reading examinations and can identify students at-risk of failing or having a reading deficit. The use of such a tool could help educators identify students who might require the assistance of extra reading instruction and could guide teachers in what manner of instruction individual students require to prepare them for state-mandated tests.


The effects of high-stakes testing are prevalent in students and faculty throughout the schools and districts in the United States. Teachers experience the pressures of being held accountable for student scores, and they alter their curriculum and pedagogy to ensure adequate time to prepare students for the examinations. Students also feel pressure to perform well, as these assessments determine whether they are advanced or retained. State-mandated tests also have an effect on student self-perceptions, as students who do well on the examinations generally have higher academic self-images than those who perform poorly. Another side-effect of high-stakes tests on students is an increase in the prevalence of bullying, as educators are more concerned with preparing students for the examinations than negative behaviors in the schools.

There is a progression toward including students with disabilities in state-mandated assessments. One theme that guides this action is the use of accommodations. Research states that accommodations must be fair, and they should be effective only for those students with disabilities. The use of accommodations such as extended test time, reading proper nouns to students, and reading students the stems and possible answers were deemed effective though one study, while the use of research guides were found to be ineffective and calculators were proven to be helpful to students with and without disabilities, and thus unfair. The R-CBM was determined through research to be an accurate method to predict student performance on high-stakes reading examinations and a possible identifier of students in need of extra reading assistance.

What This Means for Instruction

Yehudi A. Cohen states, “To expect that a state will allow its schools to serve aims other than those of the national policy is to expect that a state will not act like a state” (qtd. in Perreault, 2002, p. 709). It is improbable that high-stakes testing is going away any time soon. Educators need to understand the implications of such examinations and devise methods to overcome the negative effects while bolstering the positive effects of these assessments. Knowing the stresses that state-mandated tests put on teachers and students will help faculty improve the atmosphere for students and coworkers during stressful times. Educators should break away from teaching only testable material to provide ample learning opportunities for students in all content areas and to afford students the ability to acquire a well-rounded education. Educators need to avoid focusing on testing to such an extent that they neglect the safety of their students, and it is imperative that teachers and administrators instill a high self-perception in students regardless of and separate from their performance on state-mandated tests.

Furthermore, educators should be weary of unfair accommodations, yet encourage and prepare students with disabilities for high-stakes examinations. Students should not be identified as “learning disabled” simply to avoid negative scores for schools but coached on strategies to perform well on such tests. Teachers should embrace the challenge of furnishing their students with the means to achieve success in all that they do.


Au, W. (2007). High-stakes testing and curricular control: a qualitative matasynthesis. Educational Researcher, 36(5), 258-267.

Conkoy, O. & Tut, M. A. (2005). High-stakes testing and mathematics performance of fourth graders in North Cyprus. The Journal of Educational Research, 98(4), 234- 243.

Engelhard, G., Fincher, M., & Domaleski, C. S. (2010). Mathematics performance of students with and without disabilities under accommodated conditions using resource guides and calculators on high-stakes tests. Applied Measurement in Education, 24(1), 22-38.

Fletcher, J. M., Francis, D. J., Boudousquie, A., Copeland, K., Young, V., Kalinowski, S., & Vaughn, S. (2006). Effects of accommodations on high-stakes testing for students with reading disabilities. Exceptional Children, 72(2), 136- 150.

Fritchett, P. G. & Heafner, T. L. (2010). A national perspective on the effects of high- stakes testing and standardization on elementary social studies marginalization. Theory and Research in Social Education, 38(1), 114-130.

Hazel, C. (2010). Interactions between bullying and high-stakes testing at the elementary school level. Journal of School Violence, 9(4), 339-356.

Hintze, J. M. & Silberglitt, B. (2005). A longitudinal examination of the diagnostic accuracy and predictive validity of R-CBM and high-stakes testing. School Psychology Review, 34(3), 372-386.

Jones, B. D. (2007). The unintended outcomes of high-stakes testing. Journal of Applied School Psychology, 23(2), 65-86.

Perreault, G. (2002). The classroom impact of high-stress testing. Education, 120(4), 705-710.

Pershey, M. G. (2010). A comparison of African American students’ self- perceptions of school competence with their performance on state-mandated achievement tests and normed tests of oral and written language and reading. Preventing School Failure, 55(1), 53-62.

Schulte, A. C., villwock, D. N., Whichard, S. M., & Stallings, C. F. (2001). High-Stakes testing and expected progress standards for students with learning disabilities: a five-year study of one district. School Psychology Review, 30(4), 487-506.

Thorn, A. R. & Mulvenon, S. W. (2002). High-stakes testing: an examination of elementary counselors’ views and their academic preparation to meet this challenge. Measurement and Evaluation in Counseling and Development, 35, 195-206.

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