A look at high stakes testing

     So I am taking an English composition class online and the main focus of the class is to write a research paper, including a research proposal paper, and the final paper. We could pick any topic, as long as it is an issue in society today, whether it be political, social, economic etc. And there has to be some sort of solution to it. One of the issues I’m most passionate about is education reform, particularly primary and secondary, so I decided to take this topic and narrow it down to a specific issue- high stakes standardized testing and it’s impact on teachers, schools, students, etc.

       I’ve found this research process to be enlightening; I interviewed a former teacher from an elementary school in the projects, known as one of the worst in Pinellas County, and gained insight into the teacher evaluation process and the real challenges a teacher like her in a low socioeconomic school, faces day to day. The issue with standardized testing is something that requires a change in perspective from politicians and reformers. Because of I feel it is an important issue, I thought I’d share my proposal paper (I present my chosen issue and explain why it is a relevant one in today’s society) with you all. Maybe you are well aware of this issue, or maybe you aren’t but hopefully will learn a little bit 🙂


High stakes testing: Failing our schools

     The modern testing system began with the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), put into place by Lyndon B.  Johnson in 1965, as an effort to raise education standards. After 2002’s No Child Left Behind Act, the use of standardized testing grew incredibly fast. The act mandated annual testing in all fifty states, and high stakes achievement tests have caused the most controversy (Standardized Testing ProCon). Standardized testing should not be used for high stakes purposes, as it hinders teaching methods, student performance and school development. They carry heavy consequences for teachers, students and schools; low scores can mean less funding, teacher firings, etc. while high scores lead to bonuses, continued funding etc.

     The American education system is inundated with standardized tests. As of 2016, according to a 2 year study by the Council of the Great City Schools, the average student in a big city public school takes 112 mandatory tests between pre-k and 12th grade. Proponents of high stakes standardized testing argue that this allows for an unbiased, objective and cost-efficient method for measuring achievement. While it is a streamlined way of evaluating and scoring gains or losses in schools, it also harms education, including the way teachers teach. Teachers are expected to take up work related to testing, in addition to their regular teaching responsibilities. The additional tasks include collecting, organizing and analyzing data associated with testing and developing curriculum to align with tests. Curricula that is mandatory for preparing students for tests, forces teachers to use materials that they didn’t develop and which might not meet needs of the actual students in the class (How Standardized Tests Shapes and Limits Student Learning). This can create a stressful environment for students and teachers. According to a National Education Association Survey from 2014, 72% of teachers feel “moderate” or “extreme” pressure from both school and district administrators. 42% said emphasis on improving test scores had a negative impact on their classroom, and 52% reported spending too much time on test prep.

     High stakes testing has an especially negative impact on students’ education and teacher evaluations, as it ignores the varying degree of student demographics, inequalities and cultures. Schools throughout the country are facing an inequality crisis. The gap between schools which serve middle/upper income students, and poor urban schools, is growing rapidly. One in five kids live in poverty, and as of 2013, 24% of students attended high poverty schools, compared to 19% in 2011 (NCES).  Roughly one fifth of American public schools have more than 75% of students living in poverty (Inequality.org). The fact that there is such a high concentration of poverty in only certain schools, shows how segregated public schools have become.

      In Florida, for example, Pinellas County exhibits a stark contrast of poverty and wealth, in terms of schooling. Sam Smith (I’ll use a fake name on here for anonymity purposes), former teacher at Melrose Elementary, a school in Pinellas County, on the Southside of Saint Petersburg, had witnessed the struggles of students living in poverty. “I taught the STARS program for seven years, a program for students who were retained in third grade and previous grades. The school is mostly African American, and the kids in my class and in the school, were all on free lunch. That can make a huge difference in performance. But they’re given the same standards to meet, the same tests.”

     This is what standardized testing doesn’t take into account. How can standardized tests fairly evaluate a school such as Melrose and compare it to a neighboring school with mostly middle income students? Smith explained part of the evaluation process, in the interview.

     “There are six modules for reading and writing with an assessment at the end of each one. The second module, B, and the fourth, D, determine our VAM scores, which is factored into our evaluation at the end of the year and teacher pay as well. It’s an 11 step formula to calculate evaluations. Last year, my own class evaluation was decent, like 98.7, but when the score came in for the whole school, which counts as well, my evaluation dropped down to 93.4, and I was like, wow, really?”

     And when basing things such as teacher pay and school funding off of these polarizing results, it is unfair to the teachers who cannot control these external issues the kids face.

     “I don’t think it’s fair because the teachers in those schools like Melrose are in the trenches. Like the teachers in exceptional education, how does that come into play when a student can’t even speak or write their name, and have to do testing…..it’s going to make teachers gravitate towards the nicer schools.. Everyone’s going to be running to those kids and those advanced classes and who’s going to be left for the kids who can’t be in those classes.”

    Smith’s last comment in her interview brings up another point about the affect these tests have on student development. Who is going to be left for the kids in these poor urban schools? Teachers who find the pressure to face these standards in a low performing school, may transfer to a different school in hopes of a better environment, which leaves the school and students at a disadvantage. It can lead to hiring more inexperienced teachers in order to fill spots, disorganization in the classroom and students who aren’t getting quality instruction.

     The No Child Left Behind Act originally required testing for teacher accountability, and then in 2009, the Obama administration revamped the act with their Race to the Top program. It offered 4.3 billion dollars as an incentive to produce better school results. In order to qualify for multi-billion dollar grants, states had to include test results in the evaluation of teachers (Politico report: Race to the Top).  The issue with this is that, as stated at the beginning of this paper, standardized tests are faulty in how they accurately judge student performance. So how is it ethical to give bonuses to the teachers with good scores, and closing down or withholding funding from low performing schools, all based on a standard test score.

     Would the decrease in high stakes testing result in perfect solutions to every problem in American education? No, because there are so many factors, such as teacher pay and funding, that determine the system’s success.  But by eliminating even just a small part of the problem, a solution becomes more feasible.




The Condition of Education 2015 http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015144.pdf



Featured Image: Craig F. Walker/The Denver Post/Getty 




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