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Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at www.petermdewitt.com. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

3 Reasons Why High-Stakes Testing Matters

By Peter DeWitt — December 14, 2014 5 min read
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Whether we like it or not, high-stakes testing matters. As some students and their parents choose to opt out, others want their children to take the test. It means something to them. Grades matter. After all, we can tell a lot about a student who gets high grades. We know who those students are, and we love to put their names on the Top 10 list of their high school class.

Those students who do well on tests should not be chastised. They are high achieving and will go places in life...at least that is what most people think when they see the names of the students who do well on high-stakes testing. After all, a test ... especially one that is high stakes is like a crystal ball that shows us who will do well in life, right?

We can also gain a better understanding of those students who do not do as well on tests...

If they are students who struggle, we can get them more frustrated right before they take the test so they become paralyzed with test anxiety. We make judgments on them after the test is completed. We say things like, “They just don’t do well in school,” or “they are a 2 and that’s the best they will ever do.” This, of course, sets them up for the following year when they have to take the next high-stakes test, and the 2 becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Now that high-stakes tests are tied to teacher evaluation, those 2’s are looked at very differently because they “count” against or for the teacher. As much as governors or state education leaders say the test is only one small part of schooling, we know it’s the most important part, because testing is what governors talk about to say schools are failing, and the news media reports on to say how many students are not proficient in math or ELA.

There are three reasons why high stakes testing matters to some people...

1. Separates good students from bad ones - Sure, some teachers and leaders will say they have other strengths, but high-stakes tests show us which students are really good at school, and those that aren’t.

Maybe they “don’t set their mind” to it or are “lazy.” Those outside of education, and some within, will say that students who do not do well on tests need to suck it up, so their low test score is just a way to highlight who they are for everyone to see. Everyone has to take a high-stakes test. SAT’s ACT’s, driver’s tests, civil service exams ... those all weed out the good students, drivers, and workers from the rest ... right?

I mean...who cares about hard work when we can have a test? It’s the easiest way to see who is brilliant.

Students who do well on high-stakes tests are well known ... almost as well known as those students who don’t. From a very young age, students are tracked by how they score on those tests. We know their names. Like an example of Social Darwinism, high-stakes testing separate the good students from the bad ones.

At least, that’s what some people think.

2. Highlights the great schools - Ever see schools that tout their low test scores? Probably not. They just make “excuses” like poverty, parental involvement, or some other social-emotional problem.

How about schools that are celebrated in newspapers and the local news media for doing well? Schools with high test scores wear them like a badge of honor, and they make sure that they post it on their websites and Twitter accounts. They may try to say that high-stakes testing doesn’t matter, but their actions speak louder than words. Those are the districts that parents with means want to move to ... why wouldn’t they?

3. Predictor of Success - Students who get high scores on state testing are the same students who will do well throughout school. After all, we know that test scores can help predict how students will get through future struggles, and perhaps overcome tragedy. I mean, you can tell that from a test score, right?

Sadly, students who do well on high-stakes tests are mostly likely challenged more in school because ... they can handle it. They are given more responsibilities in the classroom, and have parent-teacher conferences that look very different than their struggling counterparts.

The other students who do not do well on the other hand, are seen as the students who need academic intervention services (AIS), which will be like the roach motel, because once they go in they will never get out. They get pulled out of class ... or sometimes their AIS teacher pushes in. No matter. ... they get labeled as an AIS student. High-stakes testing really likes to push labels.

Grades on high-stakes tests follow students up through their academic career, and students who do not do well will be viewed ... and treated ... like students who may never do well in school, therefore high-stakes testing becomes a great predictor of how students will do throughout school, because students who don’t do well on high-stakes tests will be the same students who think they are not good at school.”

And sadly, there are teachers, principals, parents ... and worst of all ... students who buy into that philosophy.

The Problem?

The problem with that philosophy is that we know it is not true. High stakes testing should not separate the good students from the bad ones. It separates the good tests takers from those who aren’t. The unfortunate piece is that high-stakes testing is given so much power, regardless of what leaders may say, that people begin to believe that students can be weeded out so easily.

High-stakes testing doesn’t highlight great schools, although you would not believe that given the media attention. It merely shows the schools that have means, and once again punishes those schools that have tougher populations of students. It doesn’t mean those students cannot learn, but they probably aren’t going to show what they know on a test as often as their wealthier peers.

High-stakes testing acts like a predictor of success because it separates students based on scores. One thing will lead to another and this self-fulfilling prophecy will become true if we let it. Students who truly have gifts, they just haven’t had the same opportunities to show them, get lumped into a category that is unfair. Just because a student struggled on a test in 2nd grade should not mean that we allow them to believe they will struggle in school for their whole academic career. We don’t have to give the test that much power.

We are missing out on great opportunities because we have an over focus on testing. This does not just mean the people responsible for tests, it means those of us giving the test as well. Our reactions to it create many self-fulfilling prophecies as well, and that is one of the biggest reasons why high stakes testing needs to go away.

Feedback is what helps students grow as learners, which is the point of schooling. Test scores don’t.

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The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.