The Debate on High-Stakes Testing

high stakes testing debate

A high-stakes test is a test with important consequences for the taker. For the intents and purposes of this blog, we are referring to standardized tests like the SAT and state tests like MCAS and FCAT. Standardized testing is a lot like the government: while they provide alignment and accountability, the roll-out and politicization often overshadows the original, positive intent.

Tests, when used properly, are among the most sound and objective ways to measure student performance. But, when test results are used inappropriately or as the sole measure of performance, they can have unintended, adverse consequences. As school officials and administrators are increasingly calling for the use of tests to make high-stakes decisions, they must ensure that students “are tested on a curriculum they have had a fair opportunity to learn.

Arguments for high-stakes testing

During the 2013 education summit, Paul Pastorek, senior advisor for the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and former Louisiana state superintendent, made the case for standardized testing: “If we want to hold people accountable, we have to measure what they’re doing.” Pastorek said tests were essential tools for measuring how schools as well as teachers perform and that schools that do not perform well should be held accountable.

Standardized testing allows students in various schools, districts, and even states to be compared. Let’s take the SATs for example. A student in Texas and a student in New York are both taking the same test so when a college admissions officer look at the score, it does not have to be adjusted based on the curriculum each student went through. It helps educators compare apples to apples.

Arguments against high-stakes testing

The arguments against high-stakes testing far outnumber the arguments for the high-stakes tests. People often merge their issues of high-stakes testing with Common Core, when they are not necessarily the same issue. According to Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “the standards have come to be associated with testing rather than the deeper learning they were intended to promote.” Still if we set the Common Core standards aside, high-stakes, standardized testing still has some disadvantages.

First and foremost, the results of the tests are being highly politicized. That is, a teachers job and income as well as a school’s ranking and funding are tied to the results of these tests. According to Randi Weingarten, “No other nation in the world tests every student nearly every year. And no other nation relies so heavily on a test score to rank and sort teachers. And we continue to move in the wrong direction.”

While accountability is certainly a benefit of these tests, that argument is based on a test that accurately measures a student’s learning. Unfortunately, one-time, high-stakes tests only serve as a snapshot of a students ability, and therefore the results must be used in conjunction with other factors that we’ll talk about next week.

As written in the Huffington Post, “Since the results on reading-comprehension tests are not chiefly based on what a teacher has done in a single school year, why would any sensible person try to judge teacher effectiveness by changes in reading comprehension scores in a single year?”


In the 2014-2015 states who have adopted PARCC, a college- and CCSS-aligned test, will roll out the new national exam. What remains to be seen is how students, districts, and states will fare on a national level, with national standards. So long as there are high-stakes tests, arguments both for and against them will not be far behind.

Did we miss a big point on standardized/high-stakes assessments? Join us on March 6th for our third Gradeable Social where we’ll be debating everything assessments. For questions, please email

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