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Peter DeWitt's

Finding Common Ground

A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and independent consultant, DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. He can be found at

Education Opinion

High Stakes Testing is not a 21st Century Skill

By Peter DeWitt — November 04, 2011 4 min read

Recently, New York State test scores were released to the public and showed that students scored lower in the areas of ELA and math than in previous years. The results were quickly announced by the media. Even the national news chimed in to report the devastating results of the high stakes tests.

News stories appeared about how our students are doing worse in reading in math than ever before. The New York State Education Commissioner put out the following statement.

“Student outcomes have been stubbornly flat over time. The Regents reform agenda is designed to change that, by driving long-term gains in student performance. Better tests are only one part of the reform strategy” (SED, 2011).

What if it is not the student outcomes that have been stubbornly flat? What if it is the constant focus on high stakes testing that has remained stubbornly flat? Is it possible that our students really do have 21st century skills, and it is not reflected on the state assessments?

Stubbornly Flat Issue
Truth be told, high stakes testing is not new to New York State. It began in the mid-90’s where they were given to fourth and eighth grade students in the areas of ELA and math. Many of our young teachers have never known what it is like to teach without the pressure of the state exam. To many other educators, the days of not using high stakes tests are a distant memory.

In addition to high stakes testing we have been under the watchful eyes of NCLB for well over ten years. Considering NCLB and state testing, hasn’t better tests always been the reform strategy? What makes this new reform strategy better than the largest non-partisan reform strategy that came before it?

We have new and improved house cleaning supplies. We also have new and improved cereal, yogurt and drinks. There is new and improved cat and dog food! Is this the marketing version of new and improved testing?

“We’re also moving forward in our efforts to ensure better training and better support for the teachers and principals in our schools; to provide more transparent and useful data; and to help our lowest performing schools take the necessary steps to turn around their performance or replace them with innovative alternatives” (SED, 2011).

What are the innovative alternatives? How is this training going to take place? New York State is suffering from major budget cuts in education. All school districts have seen a cut in funding from the state and federal levels, and now a 2% property tax cap is on the way. We also have the new teacher and administrator evaluation that will cost districts astronomical amounts. Who exactly will pay for this new training and better support?

As for “support”, evaluation is being tied to a point scale which has many new punitive measures. The training process for districts along with the approved evaluative methods that they need will cost a great deal of money. Who is “supporting” schools as they deal with new mandates with little help (or relief) on the old ones? Throwing new mandates at us while we are still trying to deal with the old ones is pushing us into a corner, which is most likely the ultimate goal.

Maybe we’re not doing a bad job after all
All of these discussions and press releases about lower test scores and new support made me start thinking about one simple idea. What if our students are not getting a poor education? What if our students, and the 21st century skills we have taught them in the past decade, make them ill-prepared to take the archaic tests that states are offering?

What if our students have so many 21st century skills that they can no longer do well on a test that was created for them before they were ever born? We always say that we are educating students for jobs that have not been created yet, but we leave out the fact that we are using tests that were made before our present students were ever created.

“Many students think deeply and score well on tests, while many others do neither. But, as a rule, better standardized exam results are more likely to go hand-in-hand with a shallow approach to learning than with deep understanding” (Kohn, 2001).

Our schools are provoking students to think deeper. We always ask inquiry-based questions and have multiple conversations that take a topic and go deeper. Perhaps they look at the multiple choice exams and think that more than one answer is possible because they can read into how each answer might work as a solution.

The tests are not keeping up with our students’ level of thinking. “What is true of a student’s thinking is also true of a teacher’s instruction. A rise in scores may be worse than meaningless: it may actually be reason for concern” (Kohn, 2011).

In the End
Educators have spent so much time thinking that they are not teaching 21st century skills because students are not doing well on state exams, when teaching may not be the issue. Perhaps the state tests are the issue because they are paper and pencil when we teach through the use of inquiry-based and interactive models of teaching.

One innovative solution is to stop spending so much money on testing and put in other areas where there is a great deal of student need. Educators see students who come to school with a lack of sleep, undernourished and unloved.

If we really want to get to the heart of the issue than we need to take the millions of dollars that we spend on testing and put it toward high quality pre-schools, child care, and health care for our students. If we fix some of the social issues (i.e. student homelessness, poverty, nutrition, etc.), then we can truly make an impact on a stubborn problem that has not been fixed. Perhaps a few years without testing and paying major money for evaluative tools will allow us to truly measure how our students are learning and may even allow state education departments to really “support” schools.

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Kohn, Alfie (2001) Fighting the Tests: A Practical Guide to Rescuing Our Schools

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.


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