Evaluation Experts Speak: The Ramifications of High-Stakes Testing

January 29, 2007

Chris Dede | Grant Wiggins | Bruce Alberts | Linda Darling-Hammond | Sonia Hernandez | Hugh Price | Karen Sheingold

Chris Dede

Professor, Harvard University Graduate School of Education

I think that high-stakes testing is one piece of the overall picture of assessment and it does provide a way that we can compare students in different places, but too often the high-stakes tests measure only a very narrow part of the curriculum, a very limited set of skills, and they're geared to the typical student rather than to students that present diverse needs and interests.

To complement things like high-stakes tests, we need portfolio assessment. We need formative and diagnostic assessments that teachers do in the process of instruction. We need to be able to chart a student's growth over time, using more measures than just one every year in terms of what they've learned and accomplished. And we know a great deal about how to do that, but we haven't done a very good job of implementing it. Technology is really a vital piece of it because it provides a very detailed way of tracking what students are doing and then making inferences about what they know and what they need to learn next.

Back to Top

Grant Wiggins

President, Grant Wiggins & Associates

I'm a believer in there being a need for standards. I think the standards movement on balance has been a very good thing. It has forced teachers and administrators and district personnel and school boards to say, "What's the bottom line? What is an educated person? What are our priorities?" It's because it's easy to be distracted as a teacher and as an administrator.

On the other hand, by having a one-size-fits-all state test and a high-stakes single test for, say, graduation or promotion, that violates the professional standards of education and measurement. We've said for twenty years in this profession, through the various agencies and organizations nationally that are involved in teaching and measurement, that you should never make an important decision -- whether it be placement in gifted and talented or special needs services or graduation -- on the basis of a single score.

The people who produce these tests tell you the same thing. Policymakers have lost sight of this and in our nervous concern about schools and accountability, we're in danger of doing something that's really quite wrong -- promoting people or holding people back on the basis of a single score that has margin of error in it, that doesn't do justice to all the standards, that doesn't do justice to all we value about learning and schooling. I'm in favor of standards and I'm okay with testing. But high-stakes, one-shot testing is just wrong.

See full interview.

Back to Top

Bruce Alberts

President, National Academy of Sciences

These high-stakes assessments, more and more are becoming the tool that national leaders want to use to drive education in the right direction. It's part of what's called the accountability movement. These high-stakes tests have to have certain characteristics -- they have to be inexpensive and applicable to everybody. They can't match the curriculum because they have to test every student, and the curriculum is different in every state. So the problem is the high-stakes assessments are getting in the way, beginning to get in the way, of good science teaching because they're creating a high motivation on the part of the teacher in the school to teach to that test, rather than teach what the teacher thinks is best for the students or what the curriculum should be according to the school district.

This means that we have to pay a lot of attention to what we're doing when we're testing in the modern world for science achievement. It also means that we need to make a much bigger investment in creating the right kinds of tests.

See full interview.

Back to Top

Linda Darling-Hammond

Professor, Stanford University School of Education

There's an irony in testing in American schools. We probably have kids who are the most over tested and under examined of any kids in the world. Take New York State, for example. Even before they get to the Regent's Examinations, students will have taken twenty batteries of tests over the course of their school careers, and they'll take many, many more [tests] in high school. There are thousands and thousands of hours spent on taking these tests and preparing for these tests, which give very little indication of what kids can actually do in real-world situations.


When you do traditional testing, the tests arrive in a brown paper wrapper. It's highly secret. You hand them out, then you pack them back up, and send them to somebody else far away who will score them. By the time the results come back those kids have moved on to another teacher. They have no information for you about how to actually improve the quality of the teaching that you're doing for the kids that you have and very little information about what the kids will do in settings outside of the taking of multiple-choice tests.

See full interview.

Back to Top

Sonia Hernandez

Education Consultant, Los Angeles County Alliance for Student Achievement

Over emphasis on a single assessment or a single measure -- whether it's at the federal, state, or local level -- is a serious mistake in education because, somehow, people think that one number is going to tell us everything we need to know about what a student is learning and what a teacher has taught and what a district has supported. And that's just not the case. Life isn't a multiple-choice test. It really isn't. We really need to have kids who are learning much more than that.

The problem is that if you make it a very high-stakes assessment where there's money involved, where there's a potential for a loss of jobs, what happens is all instruction falls away except for that [which] is actually focused on this one test. Now, if it's a great test -- if it's a really great assessment that has lots of parts to it, is very rich, and has really integrated a lot of standards that we value into it -- then that may not be too bad of a decision.

However, there are still drawbacks. But in fact, that's not what's happening in most of the big states. We've narrowed the view of curriculum down to a few sets of skills. We're going to measure them in the least rich, most efficient way -- in fact, the least expensive way -- and then we're going to use that to make some very high-stakes decisions, and that's wrong. It's so wrong.

Back to Top

Hugh Price

President, National Urban League

You want to know, and you need to know, whether children are performing on grade or better. Tests are one of the ways of finding that out. If you have a school -- as we have all across this country -- where 70 or 80 percent of the children are performing way below grade, that's a problem. You need to know that, and the only way to know that is to have some measure of assessing whether or not the kids are reading on grade level. If they're not reading on grade or better, that means when those children move from elementary school to middle school, they're not going to be able to handle the word problems in algebra, they're not going to be able to keep up in social studies. So it's important to know.

The question is, are we obsessing? Are we overdosing on exams and the consequences of the findings? Do we use the findings to strengthen instruction, to try new methods of instruction, to restructure the schools to maximize the children's opportunity to learn? Or do we use the test results to bludgeon the children, send them into un-air-conditioned summer schools where the kind of instruction is the same that failed already? Those are the kinds of issues that I think we've got to look at.

Back to Top

Karen Sheingold

Educational Consultant

In many states and districts at this point there is a strong commitment to using standardized tests and only standardized test results to make very high-stakes decisions about students, about whether they will graduate to the next level, about whether they get to graduate from high school -- really important decisions that affect the lives of students and their futures based on tests that take place at one point in time, that are decontextualized for students. You know, they come wrapped in cellophane and you have to unwrap it, and typically there's a lot of anxiety around these situations for students. And even though many of these tests are thoughtful and well-constructed, they provide, in my view, not nearly enough information about the knowledge and performance of a particular student.

Back to Top

Share This Story

  • email icon

Filed Under

  • Assessment

Follow Edutopia

  • facebook icon
  • twitter icon
  • instagram icon
  • youtube icon
  • Privacy Policy
  • Terms of Use
George Lucas Educational Foundation
Edutopia is an initiative of the George Lucas Educational Foundation.
Edutopia®, the EDU Logo™ and Lucas Education Research Logo® are trademarks or registered trademarks of the George Lucas Educational Foundation in the U.S. and other countries.