Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

What's at Stake in High-Stakes Testing

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

What's at Stake in High-Stakes Testing

Article excerpt


This article reports findings from interviews with 59 teachers and 20 parents in two large states. Both have standards, attendant benchmarks, and standardized tests to assess students on the standards. Interview protocols from teachers and parents rendered data informing us about (a) teacher and parent knowledge of state standards and testing; (b) teacher test administration and student preparation practices; (c) effects of tests on teachers, parents, and students; (d) how teachers make instructional decisions based on these tests; and (e) the value of such tests. Teachers and parents were unanimous about (a) the intense stress on all involved, (b) the undermining of meaningful instruction and learning, and (c) the high stakes involved. Differences existed between teachers and parents in the two states. Implications address the need for stakeholders in children's education to make known the deleterious effects of state testing to those in charge of state-mandated testing.

The 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission of Excellence in Education, 1983) is frequently identified as the impetus of the focused march toward accountability and high-stakes testing over the past 16 years. In no uncertain terms, this document sent out a challenge to America's schools:

    If an unfriendly power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre
    educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as
    an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves.
    We have even squandered the gains in achievement made in the wake of the
    Sputnik challenge. Moreover, we have dismantled essential support systems
    which helped make those gains possible. We have, in effect, been
    committing an act of unthinking, unilateral educational disarmament. (p.

This report recommended strengthening graduation requirements, setting higher standards for both schools and colleges, increasing the amount of time students spend engaged in learning tasks, and improving teaching through higher standards. The drive for accountability was on.

As states set higher standards, those responsible for setting the standards began considering how they would measure student progress to meet these standards. Assuming standards were clearly identified and students were taught the material allowing them to meet the standards, testing appeared to be the logical approach to identify students who did not meet expectations, as well as the teachers of these students. Thus, through developing higher standards and tests for measuring the degree to which students met those standards, there was a system in place for holding students, teachers, and schools accountable for assuring that all students met expected standards (Haertel, 1999).

During the 1990s, educators in every state worked tirelessly to perfect descriptions of standards at every level and content area (McGill-Franzen, in press; McLaughlin, 1994). Established as state education policies, standards were placed in the hands of teachers while, simultaneously, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on the development of specific tests designed to measure each standard. Although broad differences in tests exist among different states, including standardized, criterion-referenced, or performance assessments (Haertel, 1999; Sacks, 1997; Sheldon & Biddle, 1998), the nation's teachers are now fully aware that policy and testing have essentially become one and the same.

There are numerous questions about the efficacy of the policies/standards/testing efforts to improve the quality of education. Neither researchers nor teachers appear to have been highly involved in the creation of their states' standards policies. Although it seems obvious that research should inform policy, Teddlie and Stringfield (1993) report that research hardly ever informs policy making, and according to Lagemann (1996), research appears not to be highly regarded by those who shape policy. …

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