Teaching Opinion

Response: High-Stakes Testing & Student Engagement

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 21, 2013 9 min read
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Margaret Ridgeway asked:

In a recent blog you dealt with student engagement. I have a related question that came up as I was teaching summer remediation. I teach in a small rural high school in Louisiana where I see many students are disengaged in the classroom. During summer school, however, I also discovered some students are similarly disengaged with state mandated tests. Unfortunately, poor performance on tests for these students is not so much a measure of their abilities but more a symptom of their disengagement. Some see no reason to do well on them and do not even bother to try. What are some strategies for getting these students engaged in the process and helping them see that this is a required building block for creating a successful future?

Since I’ve previously posted a number of posts on student engagement, I had written that I’d like to focus on the standardized test portion of Margaret’s question. It is that time of the year, after all.

I also made a slight change to Margaret’s question, and turned into this one:

How can we encourage more student engagement in taking high-stakes standardized tests and, if we can, should we?

I’m no fan of high-stakes standardized tests (see The Best Posts On How To Prepare For Standardized Tests (And Why They’re Bad) ). In fact, Professors David C. Berliner and Yong Zhao offered their thoughts on this topic at a previous post here, Standardized Test Critiques & Potential Alternatives.

However, as I previously commented in my post on how to best prepare for teaching the Common Core to our students, one of the key lessons I learned in my nineteen year community organizing career was that, though we should always recognize the tension inherent in “the world as we’d like it to be” and “the world as it is,” living in the former seldom leads to success in the latter.

That belief doesn’t preclude me from organizing for more effective student learning assessments (see The Best Articles Describing Alternatives To High-Stakes Testing). But it does push me to explore creative, ethical, and effective ways to help my students become more engaged in the standardized tests they have to take now.

In fact, I have an entire chapter in my new book, Self-Driven Learning, devoted to the topic. Research has shown that at least 15 percent, and possibly as much as 30 percent, of a test taker’s success could depend on his or her motivation. Middleweb has reprinted a portion of that chapter where I highlight practical suggestions on how to help students enhance their motivation through developing a “success mindset” and social capital on testing days, as well as by acknowledging test anxiety and providing refreshments. Instead of repeating it all here, though, I’d encourage you to read it at their site.

Three author/educators, Michael Opitz, Michael Ford and Bryan Harris, have agreed to share their own responses to Margaret’s question, and readers have left comments, too.

Response From Michael Opitz and Michael Ford

Michael Opitz is professor emeritus of reading education from the University of Northern Colorado, literacy consultant, and author of numerous books, articles, and reading programs. Michael Ford is a professor of reading in the College of Education and Human Services at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. Their forthcoming ASCD book is titled, What if They Don’t Want To: Helping Students Rediscover the Joy of Learning:

In our close examination of research and the consensus of expert opinion in the affective dimensions of joyful learning in classrooms, we have discovered a basic formula to consider in looking at issues of engagement. Engagement usually occurs when three key conditions are present.

1. Learners have to feel that the task in front of them is within their reach or what some would call a sense of self-efficacy.

2. Learners have to value the outcome from the task.

3. The task has to be completed in an environment in which learners feel safe.

If any one of these conditions is not present, engagement drops. So if your students have the ability to be successful with the state-mandated exams, make sure they are reminded verbally and through preparation activities that these are tasks at which they can succeed. If you believe you are creating a safe atmosphere in which to take the tests, then address more directly the stress, anxiety, and pressure students may bring to these situations, in spite of what you are doing. This may be especially true if negative consequences are the primary vehicle for motivating students to take the tests.

More times than not, students have very little reason to value the outcomes of state-mandated tests. They don’t have much “skin in the game.” Unlike self-selected standardized assessments where scholarships, college admission, college credit, or professional licensure might be at stake; these externally-mandated tests provide few benefits to increase individual commitment. Unfortunately, in our review of affective dimensions, experts point out that we have spent very little time discussing how to get students to value tasks such as these. As new assessment consortia embrace more performance-based assessments that actively involve learners in tasks that allow some choice, encourage students to work with peers on topics of greater interest and show what they know -- perhaps levels of engagement will increase.

Response From Bryan Harris

Bryan Harris serves as the Director of Professional Development & Public Relations for the Casa Grande (AZ) Elementary School District. He is the author of two books published by Eye On Education and regularly speaks across the country on the topics of student engagement and classroom management:

I’m going to turn the question around a bit - Many educators start with the question, “How can I motivate my kids to do better on these tests?” I think that’s the wrong question. I believe most students are naturally, intrinsically motivated to achieve but achievement from a student perspective might not match teacher needs or assumptions - especially in light of high-stakes, state-mandated tests. For our most struggling, at-risk students a better question might be, “How can I reframe the discussion to match what students already value?” Sometimes there is also an assumption that kids don’t want to do well on state tests. I think many really do want to do well but a certain level of disengagement is totally natural if they don’t value the tests as much as we do. Think about it, as adults we act in the same way all time; we disengage from things that we don’t value. For example, many of us don’t respond to requests for feedback for online purchases from places like eBay because we don’t think our feedback will make a difference. Many of us don’t vote for the same reasons - my one vote won’t make a difference. Bottom line, it is natural to disengage from things we don’t value or from things we personally believe are meaningless, regardless of how important other people think it is.

If we believe that students (even the ones who struggle the most) really want to do well, we have some choices to make. So, what are our choices?

1. We can give up, throw in the towel and exclaim, “That’s just the way things are.” As soon as we do this, our students will know. If we hold low expectations for them, they will typically live down to them. (See Golem Effect for more information)

2. We can bribe them to “do their best” or outright threaten them with the dire consequences of inaction. The failure of this approach is well-documented (see Pink, Kohn, Dweck, Brophy) If you think this approach works, why is voter turnout still so low?

3. We can work with them to value the process over the product. In short, in conference with students (as opposed to ordering, demanding, or requiring) discuss how the process of learning is personally rewarding, meaningful, or interesting. All too often with struggling students we focus on the product or end result of the test (which is usually a grade...something a struggling student may not care about). We preach to them with admonitions such as, “You need to do well so you can get into college.” or “Our school’s rating is dependent on the results of this test, so we need you to do your best.” Once again, if a student doesn’t value those things, there may be no real reason to put forth the effort. So, stress the process of learning over the final product - the journey as opposed to the destination.

Responses From Readers


We can’t and we shouldn’t!

Jill Osler:

I have been in education for seventeen years. Assessing students is necessary for learning. Teachers need to discover what children understand, so they can support growth. However, I believe high-stakes standardized testing is not necessary for learning. I do not see these tests as ‘a required building block for creating a successful future.”

Teachers try to “cover” all the information students will be tested on--which means little time is spent on a large number of topics. Instruction in other subjects is cut back or omitted to accomplish this. Teachers train students on how to take multiple-choice tests on computers. They feel the need to present instruction in ways similar to how material is presented on the tests. Administrators, teachers, and parents then must get students excited about taking the tests and motivated to do their best. I see teachers and administrators dress up, sing, make videos, plaster hallway and classroom walls with posters, give snacks and treats, have pep rallies, perform skits--all with the intention of increasing student engagement on the tests. I guarantee this is not how teachers and administrators want to be spending their time.

How do these tests impact our kids? Ask a student. I see focusing on high-stakes standardized testing killing curiosity and passion for learning--while creating apathy towards school. All that time and energy on test prep robs students of authentic learning opportunities. In recent years there has been an explosion of research about learning and the brain; none of it supports the use of standardized testing. I see these tests creating anxiety in students, as they feel stress to perform well. Students tend to know these tests are dumb and have nothing to do with real learning, so why should they care?

Thanks to Michael, Michael, and Bryan and to many readers for contributing their responses, .

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo 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.