National Standards and High-Stakes Testing

Russell Yates

March, 2000

High stakes tests, such as the Washington Assessment of Student Learning, are being used as vehicles to force school reform. In theory, creating state assessment tests that are tied directly to higher academic standards, should improve both instruction and pupil achievement. In states such as Washington, this is done in a way that also allows for local control over the means of instruction. In other words there is no state-mandated curriculum, the acquisition of curriculum materials and the method of delivery is left to the local schools to determine. This is done with the belief that local districts have a better knowledge of their community's needs and can better find the means to meet those needs than the state can. However, there are specific standards for student achievement and newly created criterion-referenced tests designed to provide for the accountability of schools to those standards. In actual practice however, the high stakes tests are a form of coercion that force schools to increase their students' test performance. This does not necessarily translate to reform of schools, improved educational practices, or increased student achievement. I have felt the effects of this in my own classroom as our school board has given the district teachers the task of increasing test scores (stating it in this way, with the focus on the test rather than placing the focus on learning).

In their paper titled Renewing schools and smarter kids: promises for democracy (1999), authors Richard W. Clark and Patricia A. Wasley state:

In order to provide the education needed in a democratic society, we must ensure that all our students reach a high level of accomplishment. In turn, that requires high expectations and the adoption of strategies for meeting those expectations. We also need new assessment techniques that will allow us to ascertain the quality of student learning. Further, we believe that continuous investigation of innovations such as alternative approaches to schooling is essential to school renewal. In fact, because children, their parents, and their communities vary, we need an ever-expanding repertoire of approaches to bring about the success of all children.

Implied in this statement is the belief that children are complex, that there is no single instructional method or assessment technique that will be optimal for all students and all communities. Additionally, there must be high expectations for student achievement and there needs to be "...assessment techniques that will allow us to ascertain the quality of student learning." (Clark, Wasley 1999) Embedded in this statement is a focus and a concern for student learning. High stakes testing as it is currently practiced in many states, while most often tied to academic standards, focuses on a relatively narrow set of skills while assessing these skills in a format that allows success for students who have mastered a specific method of communicating their achievement.

The attention the test scores get in the media further pressures schools to focus instruction on skills that are tested. When they are placed in a format that supports comparison between schools, competition for high test scores ensues, As with most competitions, most of the contestants end up as "losers" while only a relatively few come out on top, regardless of overall improvement or unique successes that are untested. It is especially noticeable among low scoring schools that poor test results lead to instructional modifications in which "teaching to the test" becomes the norm. "Parents pressure administrators, who then pressure teachers to respond to the low performance, usually by rearranging the curriculum to spend more time on tested topics." (Airasian, p. 347, 1997)

In some states there are consequences tied directly to the outcomes of the tests for the schools. This of course only increases the pressure to perform better on those tests which again translates to test-driven instruction.

When policy makers attach punishments to poor student performance and rewards to high scores on these tests, some teachers spend more time teaching students to take these standardized tests than encouraging them to demonstrate real growth in knowledge or skills. (Clark, Wasley, 1999)

Again, children are a complex and diverse lot. To standardize their education through pressure and coercion of the public school system narrows the focus from general learning to tested skills and test-taking. This is not only unfair to many children but it can also be viewed as a disservice to our democracy.

Although somewhat lengthy for the purposes of this paper, Clark and Wasley include a story in their paper that illustrates how mandated standards/high stakes assessment can do this.

An anecdote from a school that went beyond this reform approach provides a contrasting example and helps illustrate our concerns about the approaches being taken to high-stakes assessment. Tony, a special education student, was required to complete a major senior project before graduating from his high school. He had been included in a regular ninth-grade class after having been in a resource room with other learning-disabled students for most of his educational life. With side support from the special education staff, he did well in his classes. By the end of his senior year he was sufficiently used to doing everything that was expected of high school students that he did his senior project with enthusiasm. He secured an internship at a weather reporting station. Soon he discovered an interest in producing television weather reports and secured a second internship at the local TV station. There he learned how information about weather is transferred from the weather reporting station to the television station and is then edited and prepared for public consumption.

During his senior exhibition, he explained his project to a group of evaluators selected from the school and the local community; in the process, he forecast the weekend's weather (accurately as it turned out). He was both highly enthusiastic and knowledgeable as he used video clips of weather patterns downlinked from satellites, demonstrated computer programs that help interpret data, and answered questions about predictability and margins of error. He finished by suggesting that he would be much better prepared to answer questions in a few years, because he was off to college to major in meteorology. Everyone cheered because he had accomplished so much and because his knowledge and skill were impressive.

Unfortunately, this year, Tony's school is considering whether it has time to devote to such rigorous performances in light of the state's
requirement for a new test. Had Tony been forced to take a standardized test, such as the new one mandated by the state, rather than the performance-based assessment that allowed him to pursue his own interests, he would have departed from high school with less confidence and less recognition from his academic community. His chances of continuing his learning in college would have been diminished. His evaluators would have missed his unique capabilities and might well have excused a low performance in light of his learning disabilities. As SHSA (standards/high-stakes assessment) initiatives move ahead, we worry that there will be too many Tonys deprived of the opportunity to succeed. (Clark, Wasley, 1999)

The pressure to meet new standards and perform well on high stakes tests can also inhibit creative school restructuring, at least initially. Again, due to the diversity in the classroom and in our nation (a characteristic that should be embraced in the opinion of this author), a single structure, a common curriculum, a standardized assessment will not be successful in meeting our country's goal of having all students reach a high level of accomplishment. One structural innovation that has been successful for many elementary children and in many communities across the United States is what is termed as multiage education. This structure purposefully places children of several ages together to take advantage of the diversity created. Instruction in this setting is based on each child's strengths and needs rather than on grade-level norms. Children follow a continuous progress model, learning at their own pace without having to frequently "slow down" to wait for others to grasp a skill, or to constantly be trying to "catch-up" to others of their age without having the chance to understand a concept (Yates, 2000). In North Carolina, End-of-Grade tests are administered at the end of every school year in grades 3 through 8. These tests are given to assess whether students have mastered the "grade-level knowledge and skills" for each particular grade. (Airasian p. 344, 1997) This standards/high-stakes assessment model, if enforced, insures that multiage educational structures, such as described above, would not be a public education option for families in North Carolina because students would need to be grouped by age.

It is my belief that the "high stakes" needs to be taken out of high stakes assessments. These tests are assessments that have been given power that is out of proportion of their true value. Instead, state standards need to be considered as targets or benchmarks for public schools and the assessments simply tools of measurement that will help teachers meet their individual students' needs. Competition between schools (or even classrooms), coercion from business leaders and politicians, and homogeneity of our population should have no place in our children's lives, There is too great of a chance they can hurt too many of our children's chances at success. Instead, state academic standards and the assessments that should be paired with them need to allow for innovation and diversity while giving targets for student achievement. Only then can we begin to meet the dream of fulfilling our democracy's promise of a good education for all.

Resources:

Airasian, Peter W. (1997) Classroom Assessment, Third Edition. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.

Clark, Richard W.; Wasley, Patricia A. (1999). Renewing schools and smarter kids: promises for democracy: Phi Delta Kappan, v80 no8 (online). Retrieved March 12, 2000 from WilsonWeb database on the World Wide Web: http://newfirstsearch.oclc.org/ .

Yates, Russell (2000). Resources for Multiage Education (online) Available: http://www.chimacum.wednet.edu/multiage/ (3/17/00).


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