High stakes testing is so named because the test outcomes are used to make important, often life-altering decisions. Such decisions may include the denial of a high school diploma, the repetition of a grade, the labeling of students and schools in pejorative ways, the withholding of funding, and even the closing of a school. Students who may do well in school all year but fail a high stakes test may be required to attend summer school and take the test again or spend another year in the same grade. Local newspapers routinely publish the results of high stakes tests, which can cause a range of reactions from pride to shame among students, school staffs, and parents.
High stakes testing in schools had its origin in the 1980s with the publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) issued by the Reagan administration. The report stated that public schools in the United States lacked rigorous standards and were failing. It also attacked the social promotion of students. The Business Roundtable (BRT) initiated a campaign to return curriculum to the so-called basics (such as phonics), require schools to meet high standards, and be held accountable. These reforms were to be guided by experts from the business world who understood the economy (Johnson, Johnson, Farenga, & Ness, 2008).
When the Louisiana state legislature appointed a School Accountability Advisory Committee in 1998, the state became the first in the nation to inaugurate high stakes testing with harsh consequences. Fourth- and eighth-graders were targeted for testing, and students who did not score at predetermined performance levels were to spend another year in the same grade. Low performing schools were to be sanctioned with increasingly severe measures. Within a few years, 7 states based grade promotion on a statewide test score, and by 2008, 24 states were anticipated to require passing a statewide test to graduate from high school (Education Week, 2006). Additional consequences of test results include monetary rewards to high-test-performing schools in 16 states; turning allegedly failing schools over to private managers in 14 states; sanctioning, with varying penalties, low-performing schools in 28 states; and allowing closure of low-performing schools in 10 states (Johnson & Johnson, 2006).
Public Law 107–110, called the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) bill, was signed into law on January 8, 2002, by President George W. Bush. All children, regardless of physical or mental challenges, race, socioeconomic status, or English language proficiency are to have an equal and significant opportunity to attain a high-quality public education. NCLB mandates the annual testing—using each state's achievement test—of every child in grades three through eight. The law requires that by 2014, every child must achieve proficiency in reading and math as measured by the high stakes tests, but it leaves the definition of proficiency to each state. NCLB links standardized test performance to sanctions for public schools that fail to make adequate yearly progress (AYP) by each subgroup of students based on special needs, minority status, English language proficiency, and socioeconomic status. Sanctions include the requirement that every school make public the achievement scores of each student subgroup. Schools that do not achieve AYP must help their students, who wish to do so, transfer to another school and pay the students' transportation costs. Schools are required to provide special tutoring for low-performing students, typically done through contracts with private tutoring firms. In extreme cases, sanctions may call for the replacement of an entire school staff (Schrag, 2007). No Child Left Behind has become synonymous with high stakes testing even though other elements of the law focus on teacher qualifications and professional development.
High stakes testing, as exemplified by NCLB, is highly controversial. Proponents of NCLB claim that the law has focused a spotlight on the plight of underserved, mostly minority, high poverty students. Holding schools accountable for all children, pinpointing failing schools, and allowing poor children to have access to amenities such as private tutoring, is sensible and just. The testing allows teachers to discuss low-performing students and subgroups and generate instructional improvements (Gunning, 2008). Proponents of high stakes testing believe that high standards and high stakes tests are essential to motivate students, teachers, and administrators to work ever harder to boost achievement. High stakes testing, proponents believe, will ensure that high school graduates will have the academic skills requisite for success in the workplace. For high stakes testing to be effective, the consequences of low achievement must be severe—hence, the use of sanctions such as repeating a grade, withholding a high school diploma, or school closure.
Critics of high stakes testing contend that NCLB mandates for proficiency in reading and mathematics have meant the de-emphasis or elimination of art, music, oral language, history, science, physical education, and even recess in many public schools, especially in low-performing, under-served schools. Creativity, innovation, critical thinking, discussion, and debate are things of the past in these schools, having been replaced by lock-step, repetitive test-preparation activities. The Center for Education Policy (Dillon, 2006) reports that 70% of the nation's school districts have eliminated courses to make more time for math and reading.
High stakes test opponents argue that test scores are more likely related to socioeconomic status than to school test preparation. Standardized tests punish poor, minority, special education, and non-English-speaking students in underfunded schools who must compete with middle class and wealthy students in well-funded schools on the same high stakes tests. Children who never have traveled, have few books and resources in their homes, are hungry, ill-clad, in pain or in poor health, and who live with violence cannot be expected to make the same progress or be at the same test level as children whose life circumstances are the opposite. With high stakes testing, less privileged students must endure unwarranted stress and humiliation while being denied a well-rounded education such as that enjoyed by students in affluent or private schools (Johnson et al., 2008).
Measurement issues have been another cause for concern about high stakes testing. Group standardized tests inaccurately assess individual strengths and weaknesses, and the results are unreliable. Flaws in test design and scoring have created serious problems and have led to the recall of test results in Massachusetts, Nevada, and Georgia. A scoring error on PRAXIS, a teacher certification exam, failed 4,100 prospective teachers nationwide (Johnson & Johnson, 2006).
There is ample evidence that what is measured on state high stakes tests often does not transfer to other measurements or situations (Amrein & Berliner, 2002). Learning that does not transfer from one situation to another frequently is shallow learning.
A comparison of percentages of students achieving proficiency on state tests with the federally administered National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) shows wide disparities by state. On the Mississippi state test, nearly 90% of test takers were judged proficient, but on the NAEP, fewer than 20% were shown to be proficient. In Missouri, the gap between the state and NAEP results was only 2% (Wallis & Steptoe, 2007). Such disparities illuminate the lack of transfer but also the variability in state standards and state test expectations.
Lower state standards and lower target scores to determine proficiency give the appearance that a state is doing well. In 2005, 19 states reported that 80% or more test takers scored at the proficient level on the state tests. In contrast, in only one state, Massachusetts, did more than 40% of test takers score at the proficiency level on the NAEP. Critics question what proficiency under NCLB really means. High stakes testing is corrupting American education according to Berliner and Nichols (2007), who provide examples of administrators and teachers cheating by falsifying test data. When school staffs' reputations, salaries, and job retention are related to student test performance, such corruption sometimes happens.
Other criticisms of high stakes testing and NCLB include the increasing numbers of school dropouts as schools focus on the middle range of students to the neglect of the lowest performers (Viadero, 2007). High stakes testing has been pushed on ever younger children, including preschoolers and, under the Bush administration, Head Start children. State and federal mandated testing has led to a financial bonanza for corporations in the testing, tutoring, and publishing industries as billions of dollars are spent to raise test scores.
High stakes testing has prompted extraordinary practices. In Florida, where test secrecy is sacrosanct, a 12-year-old who gained access to a test was charged with a felony (Education Week, 2004). In Louisiana a multiple-district pep rally for the state test included 800 band members, 400 cheerleaders, and a flyover by Navy pilots (Nelson, 2003). The New York City school district inaugurated a plan to pay students up to $500 for doing well on mandated tests (Medina, 2007).
While proponents and opponents of high stakes testing do battle with each other, the testing continues, and as of 2008, No Child Left Behind remains the law of the land. Only time will tell if the education pendulum swings away from the standards, testing, and accountability movement.
Amrein, A. L., & Berliner, D. C. (2002). High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 10(18), 1–69.
Berliner, D. C., & Nichols, S. L. (2007). Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing corrupts America's schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.
Dillon, S. (2006, March 26). Schools cut back subjects to push reading and math. New York Times, 1, 22.
Education Week (2004, March 17). Fla. student charged with crime for having copy of state test, 4.
Education Week (2006, January 5). Quality counts 2006: A decade of standards-based education. Bethesda, MD: Education Week.
Gunning, T. J. (2008). Creating literacy instruction for all students (6th ed.). Boston: Pearson.
Johnson, D. D., & Johnson, B. (2006). High stakes: Poverty, testing, and failure in American schools (2nd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Johnson, D. D., Johnson, B., Farenga, S. J., & Ness, D. (2008). Stop high-stakes testing: An appeal to America's conscience. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Medina, J. (2007, June 19). New York City schools plan to pay for good test scores. New York Times, A21.
National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk: The imperative for educational reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Schrag, P. (2007). Schoolhouse crock: Fifty years of blaming America's educational system for our stupidity. Harper's Magazine, 315(1888), 36–44.
Viadero, D. (2007, August 1). Study: Low, high fliers gain less under NCLB. Education Week, 7.
Wallis, C., & Steptoe, S. (2007, June 4). How to fix No Child Left Behind. Time Magazine, pp. 34–41.