High Stakes Testing and Assessment

11/1/2004 By: Carol Holzberg

The battle rages over how best to measure student learning. Do highly consequential tests used for decisions about admissions, promotion, or graduation, and high-stakes tests used to evaluate schools and school reform outcomes, result in increased student achievement? Some critics claim that these tests hold students with severe disabilities (i.e., the least capable students) to an unrealistic standard. Others say the tests discriminate against minority and low-income students, who typically receive inadequate teaching and curriculum in the nation's poorest schools. Should support for standards and accountability be equated with increased emphasis on high-stakes tests? For answers to these questions and more information on the issues, visit the following Web sites:

No Child Left Behind

On January 8, 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left BehindActof 2001, accelerating the push towards standards and accountability. Visit this site for HTML and PDF links to the full text of the law. For more information about the law's accountability requirements, see Title 1 – Improving the Academic Achievement of the Disadvantaged. The Educational Division of National Governor's Association provides a summary of promising state accountability practices at NCLB: Accountability Promising Practices.

The Nation's Report Card: 2003 Mathematics and Reading Assessment Results

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) is the federal agency responsible for collecting and analyzing U.S. Educational data. At this site you can view national math and reading assessment results for 2003. The good news is that scores for fourth- and eighth-grade math and eighth-grade reading are up. The bad news is that no significant changes have been detected in fourth-grade reading scores since 1992. While you're at the site, check out scores and trends for other subject areas, including civics, geography, science, U.S. history, and writing.

What does the SAT Test?

What do high-profile college-admissions exams like the SAT really measure? Are results linked to IQ (intelligence quotient), reasoning abilities, academic aptitude, college performance, socio-economic status, or test-taking abilities? Case Western Reserve psychology professor Douglas K. Detterman and graduate student C. Frey claim the New SAT (to be unveiled in Spring, 2005) measures general intelligence. Find out more about their controversial position by reading this Boston Globe newspaper article.

State Has Strange Way with words

Tribune staff reporter Tracy Dell'Angela, describes how standardized tests profoundly impact the way students write when they are taught to write essays in a formulaic (five-paragraph and three-topic) way to facilitate automated essay grading by machines. As a result, even students in poorly performing schools can pass the standardized writing test. Visit the Web site to learn whether writing quality and creativity have suffered because young writers have little incentive to exceed the low standards. The Education Week article, “State Tests Influence Instruction, Research Says” shows what happens when teachers shift instruction to focus on what is tested.

Are High-Stakes Tests Punishing Some Students?

Do high stakes tests hurt non-native English-speakers? What about low-income or learning-disabled students? Should single test exit exams be the deciding factor determining promotion or getting a diploma? Some teacher unions, parent organizations and student groups claim single test exit exams discriminate. Other organizations support it. Learn more about the arguments pro and con, find out what's happening in the states of Massachusetts, Indiana and Wisconsin, and follow links to other articles arguing about whether standardized tests should determine who is held back,

EDinformatics (Education for the Information Age): State Testing Resources

What better way to prepare for your own state test than to practice test taking? This site lets you view and practice sample tests from yours and other states, complete with online grading. You'll find links to states that have released past tests and sample exam questions (Adobe Acrobat Reader required). TIMSS (Third International Math and Science Survey) tests are available for grades 3-4, 7-8, and 12 math and science. The U.S. placed 13th in the world on the TIMSS Math test several years ago. Sample ACT test questions are also provided along with links to sample SAT questions, plus several subject area resources, including dozens of interactive activities that make use of java, VRML (virtual reality modeling language) and shockwave to teach physics, chemistry, biology, and mathematics.

Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation's Schools

In this position paper published by its Public Affairs department, The American Psychological Association tackles the highly charged question of how student learning and achievement should be measured. As the authors point out, the problem is always with the test itself. Rather, tests have unintended and potentially negative consequences for a wide range of learners. For other position statements on using high stakes testing as instruments of educational policy see AERA's (the American Educational Research Association) High-Stakes Testing in Pre-K--12 Education, the International Reading Association's High-Stakes Assessments in Reading (August 1999) and the NCTM's (National Council of Teachers of Mathematics) High-Stakes Testing.

Estimating the Costs and Benefits of Educational Testing Programs

Noted author Richard Phelps, editor of the In Defense of Testing series for EdNews.org, favors objective, external, standardized, high-stakes tests as a measure of what students have learned and how well teachers and schools have performed. Here he argues that benefits of standardized tests far outweigh their relatively meager financial cost. See also Uncensored! Secret Evidence Demonstrating Achievement Gains from Testing with Stakes ( also known as Forsaken but not forgotten: The rich, robust research literature on testing's achievement benefits. For more of the same, see Phelps's Test Bashing Series, a collection of links to chapters in his Kill the Messenger (a publication opposed to standardized test bashing). Phelps claims that antipathy to standardized testing comes from individuals, teachers and administrators concerned with protecting themselves from public scrutiny.

Testing: The Need and Dangers

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard University has published a Civil Rights in Brief position paper on statewide and national tests in schools. Learn more about civil rights concerns and follow the link to High Stakes Testing for information about additional publications on the topic.

Balanced Assessment in Mathematics

From 1993-2003, the Harvard Graduate School of Education developed hundreds of mathematics assessment tasks for grades K-12 and trained teachers how to use these assessments in the classroom. At this site you'll find links to more than 300 math assessment tasks, plus reports on doing balanced mathematics assessment, a performance-scoring tool, and an instrument for implementing the system.

The Case for Authentic Assessment

Grant Wiggins, nationally known researcher and consultant, argues in favor of examining student performance by requiring them to complete tasks demonstrating intellectual capabilities, such as conducting research, writing, revising written work, and oral analysis. Learn more about authentic assessment (i.e., what it is, how to implement it, how it differs from traditional assessment) at the Authentic Assessment Toolbox and at Authentic Assessment in Mathematics, a report of a Summer '94 Authentic Assessment workshop held at Swarthmore College.

Approaches to Authentic Assessment

Sponsored by NCREL (North Central Regional Educational Laboratory), this Web site supports authentic assessment challenging students to demonstrate skills and competencies for real-life situations and real-world applications. NCREL's position paper titled, Critical Issue: Ensuring Equity with Alternative Assessments also makes a strong case for alternative assessment opportunities in situations involving high-stakes testing.

About the Author: Carol S. Holzberg, PhD is an educational technology specialist, computer journalist, private technology consultant and anthropologist, who works as a Technology Coordinator at three schools in Western Massachusetts, writes for several national technology publications and teaches in the School of Education at Capella University. She’s a regular contributor to Technology & Learning. Send comments or queries via email to: carolh@anthro.umass.edu

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