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What Is High Stakes Testing?

High stakes testing is when the outcome on a standardized exam is a key factor when making important decisions concerning students, teachers, and schools. In other words, to different extents each of these three groups has consequences that depend upon the results of these tests.

In most states, students who do not pass the state's standardized test will not graduate. In lower grades, many states like Florida require reading remediation.

The lowest scorers in Florida are required to have two hours of remediation each day. This means that they are missing out on the classes that they would typically have in order to complete this remediation. Some states use test scores to either reward or penalize teachers. In addition, in many cases schools get 'graded' based, in part, on how well students do on the test. Depending on the state, schools might get more funding with additional scrutiny and possible penalties in the future depending on how well grades improve.

The SAT and ACT are examples of high stakes tests that have a huge impact on where students go to college. Originally, James Bryant Conant developed the SAT to help ensure that college acceptance was based more on merit than personal connections or wealth. Ironically, these same tests that were created to help ensure fairness in college admittance are now the target of those who say they suffer from race and test bias. A study which was published in 2010 in the Harvard Educational Review showed that the differential scores between blacks and whites who took the SAT were quite distinct for certain verbal questions.

The theory proposed for this difference was that the verbal questions were biased towards white cultural expressions that were not as common in black communities. Needless to say, the discussion and controversy is still ongoing.

Arguments for High Stakes Testing

Many people in America believe that high stakes testing is not only important, but also necessary to ensure that educational standards are met. Three of the main reasons cited for using standardized testing in this are to provide student motivation, hold educators accountable, and provide measures of comparison.
  • Providing Student Motivation - Proponents argue that having real consequences and rewards for students and schools provides highly motivating factors for achievement. 
  • Holding Educators Accountable - This argument states that high stakes testing provides a measure of accountability for how teachers are actually doing. Teachers are forced to at least cover the information being tested. 
  • Measures for Comparison - It is quite difficult to compare students and schools based solely on their grades. Grading practices differ from teacher to teacher. However, standardized tests help cut through this so that students and schools as a whole can be compared. This will also lead to additional help being given to those schools that are found to be low-performing.

Arguments Against High Stakes Testing

There are a number of arguments that opponents to high stakes testing cite. In fact, teachers can point to quite a number of reasons why these tests are not as beneficial as proponents claim. Three of the biggest arguments against these tests are that they place too much pressure on teachers and students, do not mirror curriculum, and in the end are biased. 
  • Too Much Pressure - Standardized high stakes tests put a lot of pressure on both students and teachers. Students who do not pass can be held back or even not be allowed to graduate. Teachers can be penalized in both official and unofficial ways with tests scores highly emphasized. Some worry that this pressure increases test anxieties which in turn causes grades to actually be lower. 
  • Curriculum Is Not Tested - Many opponents do not believe that the tests do not actually cover what students are actually supposed to be learning. Therefore, teachers have to stop following the required curriculum and 'teach to the test' instead. 
  • Test Bias - As previously shown, test bias can and does exist. Lower-income families and minority students do on average get lower scores. Using these results can be quite harmful for the students and the schools. 

In the end, high stakes testing is here to stay. Therefore, we as educators need to focus on ensuring that these tests are as valid and well-constructed as possible. When the tests themselves cover the curriculum that is actually being taught, 'teaching to the test' no longer becomes a bad thing. 

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