What is High Stakes Testing – and Why Hasn’t it Worked?

There seems to be a lot of confusion about just what we mean by “high stakes” testing.  Many people think it’s the same as the tests we used to take…like final exams.  In the “old days” when schools worked, certified teachers taught in accredited schools and the teachers gave final exams and evaluated the body of student work to produce a grade which was entered in the report card.  The accumulated student portfolio was used along with one national test like the SAT or ACT to enter college.  But today, it is a completely different story.

“In general, “high stakes” means that test scores are used to determine punishments (such as sanctions, penalties, funding reductions, negative publicity), accolades (awards, public celebration, positive publicity), advancement (grade promotion or graduation for students), or compensation (salary increases or bonuses for administrators and teachers).

We are rewarding and punishing schools, districts, teachers and students based on outside test results. “You get what you reward” is an oft heard phrase.

It makes sense that accountability works, but only within the scope of attainable expectations.  For instance, I can reward someone 5’ tall millions of dollars to beat a 7’ tall NBA player at basketball and it is nearly impossible for him to attain that goal no matter how hard he tries.   I can punish him when he fails, and there is no positive result from either to the 5’ tall player.  There would be an enormous negative effect, deflating the ego of the 5’ player and discouraging them from trying at all.

What have we done to our kids to get better scores?  We have eliminated electives to focus on the basics.  We have many times gone so far as to eliminate recess in elementary grades to accommodate more testing.  We have spent 40% and more of class time testing and reduced learning time.  We are reducing time spent on classics and classical education to make them focus on new math and upside down history where America is the imperialist enemy.

Teachers are being paid bonuses or fired based on test results of their students.  Here again, they do not necessarily control the results which determine their future.   They don’t choose the curriculum.  They don’t choose or create the tests.

Study after study shows that parental involvement is the key, and that those from single parent homes or low socioeconomic levels generally do not respond as well in school.  Many areas have large numbers of student who do not even speak English as they begin school.

Teachers today are limited in controlling their classroom discipline or curriculum.  They are now “paced” and unable to slow down or speed up to match the learning levels of students under Common Core guidelines.  Scripted lessons reduce their ability to teach and inspire students at the individual level.

Under current convoluted “VAM” scoring, teachers learn their fate many months after school ends and often they are scored on students they never even taught.  No wonder they are stressed and pass this along to their students.  They do endless pretests and focus solely on teaching to the test which will influence their future.

Schools and school districts are rewarded and punished financially based on student scores as well.  The district brings pressure to the Principals who bring pressure to the teachers who bring pressure to the students.  All are stressed out to the point they are SICK of school, literally and figuratively.

But Incentives, both positive and negative, can only produce limited variations in performance.  It is the system that produces greater change. As a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, we used statistical quality control to improve our results by examining the process. One major concept was:

Rewards and punishments (accountability) only work when people are measured on the elements they can control.

Let’s look at the empirical results of the increase in accountability standards since the advent of the USDOE:


Chart courtesy of Cato Institute. For a larger view click on the image.

What this frenzied focus on testing has done is escalated costs dramatically while results have not improved.

Testing company rewards must be considered as well.  They are rewarded when government doesn’t trust teachers and schools and uses tests that are mostly duplicates of tests already administered by the districts.  They are rewarded when children fail.  Retests cost money, too.   Pearson PLC, Bill Gates, Jeb Bush and others promoting Common Core are the selfsame recipients of the billions of dollars in their own “High Stakes” game of political control.

In summary, what we have done is decreased learning time, added layer upon layer of complexity and bureaucracy, tied the classroom teachers’ hands, and paid billions to political cronies to test our kids to death and drive out the love for learning in our schools.  The testing machine has crushed potential and subverted our schools to become propaganda delivery systems.

Imagine if we returned to a time when certified teachers were focused on unleashing the highest potential in each individual child to be whatever they aspire to be?

RELATED ARTICLE: Florida Teacher takes a stand, refuses to give standardized test