Opinion
Assessment Opinion

The Motivating Value of High-Stakes Assessment

By John T. McCrann — January 26, 2017 4 min read
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Another semester is coming to a close at my school, Harvest Collegiate High School. I’m now spending much of my work day evaluating students’ work on final performance tasks.

This process has been especially interesting for me this year as I’m evaluating work from two separate classes: algebra and geometry. Both groups of students had major projects to complete in the last days of the semester. Both groups had similar preparatory instruction and intermittent feedback. Both had clear expectations for what the project was to look like and when it was to be finished.

Yet, by many measures, students taking geometry had a greater sense of urgency about completing this work. Geometry students were more likely to attend after school tutoring and ask for help at lunch. They were more on task during in-class work sessions and more likely to come into class with work completed at home in between class sessions.

Surely, many factors played into creating this reality. They are, of course, different students completing different tasks. Yet, one factor seemed to loom larger than individual differences between students or content: stakes.

The 10th graders at our school have to earn a score we call “gateway” on performance tasks in English, Science, Math, and Social Studies in order to advance to the 11th grade. Their “gateway assignment” serves as a mini-version of the kind of task they will complete to meet the assessment part of their graduation requirement (our school is part of the New York Performance Standards Consortium, so our students meet this requirement by completing performance assessments instead of tests).

I began my career in the early days of No Child Left Behind, working at schools that were in the cross hairs of the Bush-era law. Students who could not pass assessments did not graduate. Teachers whose students did poorly were shamed and fired. Schools whose students did poorly were threatened and closed.

At the schools where I taught, high stakes lead to a high degree of dysfunction and stress. This system incentivized administration to cut support for untested subjects (like PE and the Arts). It fostered toxic relationships at my school and generally made things pretty rough.

I get it when I hear parents or teachers warn against the evils of high stakes.

But my early-career experience doesn’t tell the whole story. My time at Harvest has shown that attaching significance to certain assessments can incentivize some really positive behaviors (like the ones I described geometry students engaging in over the last few weeks). Additionally, these stakes can help students make sense of their educational experiences, serving as “mile-markers” on the school highway.

The movement against high-stakes assessment is in danger of throwing out these motivational and organizational benefits with the proverbial bath water. Many “opt-out” activists (a movement of which I am generally supportive) seem to suggest that any increase in stress or consequences for students is inappropriate. Perhaps this perspective is well-intentioned, but it seems misguided to try to shield students from healthy stress which could build their resilience.

Of course, the higher the stakes, the more important it is for us as educators to be mindful of what and how we are assessing (a thoughtful reminder about what is and is not authentic assessment from guru Grant Wiggins). We should be fighting bad assessments with high stakes, NOT the stakes themselves.

On the second day of geometry “Gateway Presentations,” I watched a student who had been particularly motivated by the high stakes nature of the task present a solution to a problem he had solved. As he spoke to the assembled parent facilitators and students, he realized that he had made a mistake in solving an equation. Fighting back tears, he admitted that he did not know the precise answer to the question. He gave an eloquent explanation of the mistake he had made and ended his presentation just before the tears that he had been fighting back finally broke through.

I escorted him out of the room and gave him a few minutes to calm down. We looked together at the rubric that I use to assess the presentations and he read aloud the description of the “gateway level” for the communication strand: “Student responses are sequenced and convey deep ideas about mathematics but may contain some errors.” A smile began to creep across his face as I reviewed with him the deep ideas he had shared in explaining why his process had not lead to the correct solution. Finally, he burst into tears again (this time happy ones) when I presented him with the evaluations which showed he had achieved the “gateway” score.

Is he an expert mathematician? No. Was the presentation and paper writing process wholly pleasant and fun? Absolutely not. Did this high stakes assessment give him a chance to show what he knows and doesn’t know about math while motivating him to continue in the face of adversity? He and I agree that it did.

Evaluating learning isn’t easy or straightforward. Assessing a student’s critical thinking is hard/complex work, but we must not let the difficulty of this task dissuade from making it a priority.

One of life’s harsh realities is that it comes with built-in stakes. The choices we make today impact the way our life will be tomorrow. Rather than trying to ignore this reality, we ought to give our students a chance to experience it through meaningful and authentic assessments.


Follow John McCrann on Twitter.

The opinions expressed in Prove It: Math and Education Policy 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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