The Hidden Problem with High-Stakes Testing

Criticisms of high-stakes testing usually focus on its effect on classroom learning and school funding. The argument usually goes as follows: test-preparation detracts from quality instruction not only because of the days lost to high-stakes testing, but the amount of test-prep lessons that consume the school year for each one of those tests. With higher test scores resulting in greater school funding, test-prep instruction becomes the norm.

However, another deleterious byproduct of this system rarely gets attention. High-stakes testing hides, not illuminates, bad teachers. Take New York City. Any resident in the city can see the test scores of any teacher under the presumptuous guise that higher test scores indicates superior instruction, allowing the most optimal and deficient instructors to be noticed. However, such instruction is only superior insofar that it has lead to higher test scores, not that students were necessarily presented with though-provoking, stimulating, and engaging lessons. High test scores and learning are not synonymous.

In fact, its rather easy to design boring, rote, and test-aligned instruction that leads to higher test scores without much quality learning occurring in the classroom. As a teacher in a low-income Philadelphia school, I’ve unfortunately done it myself more often than I’d like to admit. My test scores can be dramatically high after weeks of instruction focused on mastering discrete skills more aligned to an upcoming test than towards how the skill plays out in the real world. For example, teaching my students to identify clues in sentences as to whether it needs a colon or a semicolon has certainly led to impressive multiple choice results when the test question pits semicolons against colons. But, never have I noticed a better understanding or use of such grammatical conventions in their writing because of these lessons. Conversely, weeks of instruction that require my students to draft, edit, and redraft stories and essays with proper grammar have only lead to marginal increases in their grammar multiple choice test scores.

With a precarious path between high test scores and instruction, bad teachers find safety and great teachers go unnoticed. Uniform tests across schools most certainly have value. It’s how the nation gauges if students of poverty, color, and special needs are learning as much as their more privileged counterparts. However, an often neglected aspect of this system is that high-stakes testing creates a faulty device to measure student learning, too often extoling vapid educators and ignoring the better ones.

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