The Real Problem with the High-Stakes Testing Debate


We are about to kick off a month of resources and discussion about assessments here on, and in that spirit, I thought I’d take a few moments to touch on the current hot button in assessment-land: high-stakes testing. Everyone is talking about it: educators, politicians, parents, everyone except maybe the students who are at the center of this educational storm.

The pros and cons are well known (and we’ve recapped them here): high-stakes testing is what makes third graders too nervous and stressed to eat, let alone go to school, let alone perform well on the tests that will have such a huge impact for the adults around them, via the deadly twin bullets of teacher evaluation and school funding. High-stakes testing is just one data point in an entire school year, a flashlight beam in the darkness attempting to measure the moving target of student understanding and comprehension.  Critics further point to known variance in student scores caused by stress, illness, and other factors like stress at home, showing up and just not feeling too hot, or a testing room being too noisy and distracting.

With such well-documented weaknesses, a well-meaning attempt at a common yardstick for student achievement starts to seem like nothing more than an academic farce, or at worst, the spin of a dangerous, stressful and high-stakes roulette wheel. Frantic teachers and principals are coaching their students on test-taking techniques, bribing them with rewards for concentration and good performance, spending valuable learning hours on bubble sheet coloring practice (yes, if you can believe it), and even resorting to cheating — which if nothing else, firmly underscores the desperation felt by some in the education community.

But are we losing focus here?  Are we missing the forest (and the trees), in the interest of imposing an imperfect yardstick on every student in every classroom without regard to the ends and the means, and whether in this case, whether they will ever match?

There are no shortcuts

In a small high school south of Boston, a math teacher named Mr. Badoian is highly attentive to the growth and learning of his students. Mr. Badoian is legendary in the Boston area for coaching the geeky but high-achieving math team of this no-name town to dozens of state and New England championship wins over the past thirty years. Mr. Badoian has been recognized over and over for his excellence as an educator and is one of the best high school math teachers in the country. I was fortunate enough to be one of his students.

For the students in Mr. B’s class, it was known that there were no shortcuts. Mr. B does things his own way. We never used a textbook in his class. He focused on teaching us basic concepts and then reinforcing them with innovative problem-solving, usually much harder than anything we’d ever see on standardized tests. And a lot of repetition, or at least just enough to ensure that you had mastered a concept, before you moved on because in mathematics everything is cumulative. His basic philosophy was that if we understood the fundamentals and prepared at an extremely rigorous level, we didn’t have anything to worry about when it came to standardized assessments.

And he was right. The average mathematics standardized test scores (SAT I and II) in my high school class of about twenty students was 720 out of 800, well above the mean for the school, district, or state. More meaningfully, I can attest to the lifelong impact he had on our class of 22: a large percentage of us ended up in jobs in finance, science and business which we credit to the mathematics fundamentals we learned in his class. The test was not a means, or an end, it was just a temporary snapshot of our progress.  We were aiming at much bigger and more meaningful goals of mastering the fundamentals of a critical subject — and laying the groundwork for our own futures.

An imperfect yardstick & myopia around high-stakes tests

High-stakes testing is not the true lever great teachers use to improve their students’ learning. At best, it is an imperfect yardstick that may not even reflect students’ mastery of a subject. There is no replacement for hard work of learning and mastering concepts that is put in by the teacher and by the student. There is no replacement for the investment of time and effort, for time spent with students understanding what they know and what they struggle with, and for the effort of helpful, targeted feedback that helps them grow.

Many are currently focusing on high-stakes testing: can it be rolled back or postponed or avoided altogether?  But why are we focusing so much on this imperfect yardstick? By focusing on high-stakes testing to the exclusion of any other options, or assessments, or strategies, we risk short-changing a generation of students — and of educators, who are rebelling because they (and we) know, that we are not doing our best, not even remotely or nearly our best — for our students’ learning.

Decades of educational research underlines that it is the day-to-day efforts that matter the most in learning.  Excellent feedback. Creative instruction. Rigorous assessment of (and for) learning. The human contact between teacher and student and engagement around ideas and concepts. The passion to impact, inspire and make a difference in students’ lives that drives teachers to make the investment of time, and the ambition to learn and excel which can motivate students thus inspired.

In America, 46% of the teachers have advanced degrees in education, where they have learned that frequent, daily assessments are a far more accurate indicator of student learning than once a year high-stakes tests, and the results can actually be fed back into the learning cycle so that students learn more. The same cannot be said of most high-stakes tests, whose analyses and results are often not available until the following school year. By focusing so much on the imperfect yardstick, we are deflecting attention from the day to day where progress actually happens. If teachers focused on the little things, then this “big” thing is maybe not as daunting. Let’s not lose sight of the real end game which is student learning.

Digital tools like ours can take some of the burden out of the paperwork of grading and analyzing frequent, daily assessments. They can even help teachers give better targeted, better structured, and more personal feedback to their students. But as Mr. B taught us, there are no shortcuts for learning. Or assessment. It’s time for the dialogue to change, and that we start paying attention to the forest AND the trees. It’s time to stop short-changing our students and our teachers with this short-sighted focus on high-stakes tests. Our students need us to do better.

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