The Trouble With High Stakes Testing and NCLB
What should we make of HSTs?
The discussion concerning high-stakes testing is a controversial one with many educational organizations adopting positions which are, to varying degrees, opposed to their current implementation. At the heart of these position statements is the goal of improving the education of our nation’s youth, which, coincidentally, is also the goal of the proponents of testing. The American Educational Research Association recognizes that such high-stakes testing strategies are enacted by policy makers with the hope of improving educational outcomes. They also acknowledge that, in some cases, the gathering and dissemination of test results can be helpful in identifying and drawing attention to achievement gaps between schools and student populations (http://www.aera.net/?id=378). The problem with the HST model begins with the fact that this is not all they are used for.
Politicians and the public have determined a need to know the effectiveness of schools, on a local and subsequently national level, at educating their students. For this, they have developed a process of testing to determine if state standards and federal standards are being met. Even the American Psychological Association agrees that tests, when they are properly designed, implemented, and evaluated are among the most objective ways to measure student performance and, therefore, school and district performance (http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/brochures/testing.aspx). However, while such tests may provide the snapshot ranking of our education system desired by policy makers and the public, a trickle down effect takes place where high-stakes decisions are not only made at the macro level, but inevitably and predictably begin to show up at the student level, as the educational community strains to meet standards and avoid sanctions.
The decision of whether or not to graduate a student should require a different set of information than the decision to increase funding to a district, yet the same tests are used. The APA believes that no one test should be used for all high-stakes decisions, but that is, in effect, what is happening. They believe, correctly, that careful consideration needs to be given to the appropriateness of the tests to what they are meant to measure and the decisions they are intended to inform, and that a single test is only a reflection of that student’s ability on a particular day (http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/brochures/testing.aspx). In current practice, the same test used to make high-stakes funding decisions, is misused as a high-stakes test deciding the graduation prospects of a student based on one day in that student’s educational life.
While there are many more reasons to oppose the current system of high-stakes testing, it is clear to this writer that the overriding problem is in using the same tests for widely divergent purposes. The state and federal governments look at aggregate numbers when making decisions on funding and trouble areas, while schools and teachers are concerned with informing good instructional decisions to improve student outcomes, and one test cannot be purposed with these two tasks. Most of the aforementioned organization’s positions agree with the International Reading Association’s assessment that more research needs to be done into the development of comprehensive assessment plans that support good instructional design and decrease the reliance on HSTs. The IRA points to a British model which relies on a variety of assessments, including portfolios and teacher recommendations, as well as standardized testing (http://www.reading.org/downloads/positions/ps1035_high_stakes.pdf). Perhaps, this is the best direction to be going in. Since it is likely that some form of standardized testing is necessary and will persist, we should look to limit the high-stakes decisions that are based on them, and increase the use of alternative assessments, particularly regarding student and school based decisions.
A Fantastic Source. Buy or borrow, but read!
Diane Ravitch provides a common sense assessment of the state of our public schools under NCLB. A former free market proponent and member of the Bush administration, Ravitch details why she changed her mind and why the current focus on testing, charter schools, and vouchers is damaging the future of our education system and our country.