Testing and Motivation Studied

K-12 Testing

A major argument by proponents of high-stakes exams is that such exams will motivate students to try harder and achieve more. This argument has been made by President Clinton, many business leaders, Al Shanker of the American Federation of Teachers, and some other educators.


In The Uses of External Examinations to Improve Student Motivation, T. Kellaghan, G.F. Madaus, and A. Raczek conclude that the available evidence does not support the claim that high stakes testing will induce improved learning. This Public Service Monograph of the American Educational Research Association reviews research on motivation theory, use of motivation in test-driven education reform and in industry, and intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and use of the latter to improve student learning. The summary strongly states the authors' conclusions:


"...First, current proposals do not address the complexity of the motivation process and how a system of external examinations might have an impact on it...Second, those who are not motivated are likely to become alienated from the educational process. Third, for those who are motivated, the consequences for the quality of their learning may be very different from those anticipated in the reform proposals. We can expect high-stakes external examinations to narrow the curricular experiences of students and to encourage them to concentrate on achieving high levels of test performance at the expense of striving for high levels of mastery. If this happens, the proposed system(s) will not move the American educational system toward the objective of producing a student population with higher levels of achievement, greater self-determination and creativity, and improved higher-order thinking skills and problem-solving abilities."


In short, use of high-stakes exams could backfire against the professed goals of many education reformers, if the analysis of motivation is correct. While the monograph was written in response to proposals for national exams, the content is equally relevant to state or district high-stakes testing programs, and provides additional valuable evidence as to why implementation of high stakes tests should be opposed.


The authors conclude that the effort to really improve U.S. education "is a much more difficult and, we dare say, expensive task than mandating tougher standards and an external examination referenced to them."


-- Available from AERA, 1230 17th St., NW, Washington, DC 20036-3078; $11.00.