Exposing the Myths of High Stakes Testing

by Angela Engel

Conversations in education have been dominated by the topic of test scores for the past two decades. Standardized tests are currently lauded as "the answer" to teacher accountability, higher student achievement, standards, and expectations. Claims of "objective measures," and "scientific evaluations" promise to "fix" our schools and improve learning for children once and for all. Most realize the absurdity of this "guarantee" yet they are consoled by the claim 'scientifically researched' - however dubious. The standardized testing fib unquestioned and unchallenged imposes serious and lasting consequences for our schools and our children.

"The CSAP ensures accountability" -- The purpose of the CSAP is to measure a student's individual performance on isolated discreet variables, yet Colorado is using it as an indicator of entire schools' performance. There is no test which measures the quality of a school. True accountability is realized from an informed and committed community. Through local control - the school board election process, school accountability teams, and parental involvement - parents and citizens can ensure that schools uphold the quality and values commonly desired. High stakes testing in fact reduces accountability in that it relies solely on test scores; imposing destructive consequences and ignoring all other factors that contribute to a successful school.
The crux of school reform lies more in internal empowerment and less in feigned accountability. The decision to empower either: A) those who are professionally trained in education and invested in the welfare of our children, or B) those who are committed to winning campaigns and increasing profit margins, will likely determine the survival of public education and the future of this country.

"Testing raises expectations for student" -- CSAP and other high stakes tests represent a fraction of what students should be learning over the course of a school year. Many of the questions must be scored by the computer, reducing thinking to simple single solutions and the test must be generalized enough for thousands of students so that higher order thinking and critical reasoning are diminished. One session on a third grade reading CSAP test consists of 42 items; 34 represent multiple choice questions worth 34 points total, and 8 require short answer responses worth 18 points.
Tests don't increase expectations; parents, teachers, and communities determine expectations for children and the quality of their learning. The emphasis on "high test scores" negates the intrinsic value of learning and trivializes the educational process. We must expect a great deal more from our children then correct answers on a multiple choice test; our country must provide a challenging, meaningful and personalized educational experience that engenders a sense of purpose and responsibility in our future citizens.

"Testing improves achievement" -- According to the promoters of high stakes testing, higher annual test scores are an indicator of "improved achievement." In fact, annual increases in test scores are more often the result of more time attention and resources being spent preparing for that test. If the focus were devoted to advancing teaching and learning, then it would be teaching and learning that is improved. "While students show consistent improvement on these state exams, the opposite is typically true of their performance on other, independent measures of academic achievement."
Test scores are merely a reflection of which schools serve the most disadvantaged - and conversely advantaged - populations. Lisa Murphy used an equation she developed to predict CSAP scores with 87% accuracy in a study of 240 elementary, middle and high schools. Additional studies have found income to be the greatest indicator of performance on standardized tests. The real tragedy is an accountability process that diverts critical resources away from real solutions such as smaller class sizes, teacher training, counseling and family services, curriculum resources, and after-school programs.
An actual commitment to improving achievement discrepancies for poor and minority children would ensure adequate and equitable funding. "Regardless of what anyone claims about student and school characteristics, opportunity to learn is the single most powerful predictor of student achievement." High-stakes testing reduces opportunities for America's children, encourages thinking without substance, and creates a classroom climate of tension and fear.

"Standardized tests are scientifically accurate" -- School critics and politicians often use the words 'scientifically researched' and 'objective measure.' The general population wrongly accepts that standardized testing is some empirical measure, and that tests constructed outside of the classroom far removed from the subjectivity of educational professionals will at last be able to accurately measure knowledge. We falsely imply that technology with its computer generated answer sheets and indiscriminate shaded bubbles possesses the critical absolutism needed to eradicate the inherent flaws of human judgment. There is nothing empirical about a standardized test. It is written, evaluated, and graded by human beings, just as capable of error as the subjects they are attempting to measure.
Considering that there has NEVER been any independent analysis or audit to provide validation or verification of CSAP, the question of accuracy remains unknown. Cut scores are subjectively determined by testing officials and essay and short answer questions are judged by poorly trained and often non-degreed, temporary workers, with little or no teaching experience, earning low wages and working long days to meet deadlines. This makes standardized test scores far less informed than the judgments of professional teachers trained in assessment and evaluation and experienced in working with students.
"In recent years, the four testing companies that dominate the market have experienced serious breakdowns in quality control." In May of 2000, NCS Pearson made multiple errors in scoring, assigning 47,000 Minnesota students lower scores than they deserved. The company incorrectly lowered multiple-choice scores for 12,000 Arizona students, and was forced to re-score 204,000 tests in Washington because the state found the scores too generous. One error by McGraw-Hill resulted in nearly 9,000 students in New York City being mistakenly assigned to summer school in 1999. "Testing specialists argue that educators and politicians must share the blame for the rash of testing errors because they are asking too much of the industry." Clearly, we are asking and expecting too much of a testing industry who's primary goal is profit margins.

"Testing guarantees that children are learning the standards" -- Limitations in the construction of standardized tests such as testing time, printing, and grading the measure, prohibit any in-depth probing of a student's true understanding. In the zeal to quantify student learning, tests are crammed with content and sub content areas to be measured, none of which are measured thoroughly or completely. Test scores are not prescriptive and educators and parents are given only vague and generalized feedback.
"Testing has now become a substitute for the curriculum instead of simply a measure of it." The curriculum is being narrowed to cover the subject represented on the test and learning is restricted to memorization of facts, simple single solutions and vacuous thinking.
Every child thinking and performing the same is NOT the sign of a quality education. Twenty years of research has taught educators the importance of modifying instruction in order to engage students and support individuals unique needs and talents. Requiring every child to conform to a preconceived standard of achievement compromises independent thinking and undermines the principles of a democracy.

"Standardized testing helps the United States to be competitive with other industrialized nations." -- The United States is constantly held up as the most prosperous nation in the world, and has been leading nearly every industry for the past century. Our achievements are a result of the quality of American schools and the dedication and expertise of the highest trained teaching force in the world.
Standardized testing benefits the four major testing publishers: McGraw-Hill, Houghton-Mifflin, Pearson Assessments (formerly NCS), and Harcourt General, and allows for complete control over curriculum resources, teacher training, and other assessment tools, creating a monopoly over the "public education marketplace." McGraw Hill, publishers of CSAP, reported profit of $49 million in 1993 before high stakes testing; in 2004 with contracts in 26 states, profits exceeded $340 million. Standardized testing really isn't about competition between students, it's about financial gains and competition over economic targets. The question of who benefits from school competition and the high-stakes testing craze grows increasingly clearer.

"Standardized testing is the most efficient way to measure a child's performance." -- "Efficiency" appears to be a key word in the debate over high stakes testing. Contracts vary from state to state and usually the costs claimed are only those for the development, publishing, and scoring of the test. School districts carry the most expensive burden of administering these lengthy exams. Hidden costs include teacher training, test-prep guides, time spent in class learning that particular test format and test-taking strategies, and proctoring the actual test. The estimated total costs for the Colorado State Assessment Program (CSAP) is 50 million dollars annually. Of course most districts use additional standardized tests such as ITBS, NAEP, PSAT, ACT, TERRA NOVA, etc., exacting an outrageous amount of money for testing at taxpayers expense.
Looking at the costs spent on standardized tests and the time invested preparing the test-takers, it's hard to imagine how proponents can make the claim of "efficiency." For the same amount of money spent on CSAP last year, Colorado could have gained 1,500 new teachers and time spent on preparation and testing could have been spent on learning - what a concept!

"The public supports testing"-hmmm, do we-- "When the central aim of educational change is just to improve test scores, improved education is seldom the result." The first nationwide appraisal of No Child Left Behind showed "the rate of improvement was faster before the law."
A recent poll by Give Kids Good Schools.org found that 65% felt that NCLB needs changing and 31% do not support the law at all. 66% of the over 6,000 polled said NCLB requires too much testing. In 2005 over 3,000 Colorado families said "No" to CSAP. What we cultivate in our children is equally as important as what we fail to cultivate. "If we do not begin now to promote genuine intellectual freedom in our public school classrooms - among our teachers and our students - the claim that we as a nation stand for "freedom" will be hollow."

It is not just standardized tests and the CSAP that is at issue here; standardization, and the practice of evaluating schools based entirely on test scores undermines the pursuit of quality education. The problem lies in the fact that we have transferred the crucial responsibility of informing, guiding, and monitoring the educational system to test publishers who have no accountability. Business leaders and policy makers, distantly removed from the students, have superseded the role of the professional educators in making vital school and classroom decisions that impact our children. Parents are evaluating the quality of schools on "data points" instead of doing the necessary work of observing, asking questions, and participating in the efforts of our schools to instill wisdom, integrity, and courage in our growing future. Teachers and administrators have too willingly signed away both their rights and responsibilities in promoting learning that is individualized, challenging, and meaningful and now have all of the liability and none of the authority. Instead of educational improvement today's current reform system has reduced opportunities for disadvantaged children, demoralized our schools, narrowed the range of thought, paralyzed the imagination of a generation, and impeded our children's intrinsic motivation and the natural will to learn. Our educational institutions are the best hope for our future; if we do not rise up in the face of this injustice our nation will continue even further in a perilous direction; diminishing our capacity for greatness and limiting our potential for the extraordinary.

Copyright ©Angela Engel, 2005