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ECS High School Policy Center (HSPC)

Proponents of high-stakes testing argue that it leads to achievement and other gains:

  • Students know what is expected and that the test really counts, so they work harder.
  • Schools identify and can address student weaknesses early.
  • Similarly, schools discover areas of overall weakness, prompting them to refocus resources where they are most needed.
  • Education across the state is more consistent, eliminating situations where schools in some districts are superior to others.
  • The public sees gains from year to year and regains confidence in public schools.
Critics say the tests sometimes are too hard, lead teachers to teach to the test, take time away from instruction, and are expensive. Teachers say they’re unprepared to teach to the standards, and students claim they’re being tested unfairly, on content they haven’t yet had. Some parents and students are calling for an end to high-stakes testing, and some policymakers are reexamining plans to tie tests to key decisions such as graduation or to make high-stakes tests the central part of an accountability system.

Too much, too soon?

The problem, some experts say, is that states have tried to do much too soon without the proper preparation and support for everyone involved. “Teachers and principals simply do not know how to do what they are expected to do with the new standards,” said Richard F. Elmore, Harvard School of Education professor, at a recent Washington, D.C., conference. While some policymakers are rethinking assessments, others say the low scores are just an indication of the work that needs to be done. “When we fired this missile,” Todd Bankofier of the Arizona Board of Education said, “we knew we had to guide it. It’s going to take some left turns and some right turns, but it would be wrong to turn it completely back.” “Doing away with the tests or the consequences is the easy way out,” Robert Schwartz and Matthew Gandal wrote in the January 19, 2000, issue of Education Week. “It allows us to avoid the hard work of improving instruction and restructuring the use of time and resources so that all students are given the time and support needed to meet standards.”

Confronting the dilemma

Jay P. Heubert and Robert M. Hauser of the National Research Council’s Committee on Appropriate Test Use recommend in High-Stakes Testing for Tracking, Promotion and Graduation that policymakers keep the following principles of appropriate test use in mind:
  • Use the right test. Tests are valid only when used for the specific purpose for which they were designed.
  • Remember tests are not perfect. Questions are but a sample of possible questions that could be asked in a given area.
  • Don’t use a test as the sole determinant of a major decision. Promotion and graduation decisions should be based on many factors.
  • Don’t justify bad decisions with a test score or any other kind of information. Tests will not lead to better outcomes if districts and schools lack the services to help students who don’t come up to standard.
The answer to who’s right — the critics or the supporters — seems to be both. If the right test is used in the right way, in conjunction with other measurements, it can be an effective way to assess student learning. Without attention to factors such as discrimination, curriculum and accuracy, however, it can be detrimental to both students and schools alike.

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