High-Stakes for Students

As we enter the March Madness of testing season, many parents and teachers have become increasingly concerned that the high-stakes attached to so many tests are actually harming our students and schools. There is particular concern about the disproportionate impact high-stakes-testing may be having on our poorest students, most struggling students, English Language Learners, and students of color.

So what are the “high-stakes” for students in high-stakes testing? Examples we’ve been hearing from parents and educators across Pennsylvania include:

  • Lost learning time: there’s less time for learning with testing and test prep (for example, Pittsburgh students now take 20-25, or more, high-stakes tests a year, with new tests this year in art and music).
  • Reduced content knowledge: students are learning how to take high-stakes-tests, but cannot demonstrate subject mastery when tested in a different format. [Koretz, 2008]
  • Narrowed curriculum: with a focus on reading and math scores, students lose history, world languages, the arts, and other programs.
  • Shut out of programs: stakes exclude students when test results count as extra weight in magnet lotteries or for entrance to gifted programs or advanced courses.
  • Diverted resources: schools that perform poorly on high-stakes-tests are labeled “failures” and sometimes have resources taken away from them; the hundreds of millions of dollars spent on testing in Pennsylvania are not available for classroom education.
  • School closures: schools labeled as “failing” on the basis of test scores can be threatened with closure. These schools are usually in communities of color.
  • Loss of curiosity and love of learning: bubble tests are developmentally inappropriate for the youngest learners; emphasis on “skill drill and kill” fails to stimulate children’s imagination and limits their natural curiosity.
  • Blocked access to facilities: many schools find their computer labs taken over by testing for weeks on end and not available for learning.
  • Harmful stress: children are pressured to not only demonstrate their knowledge but to represent the effectiveness of their teachers and their schools. Teachers are reporting children throwing up, losing control of their bowels, and increased commitments for psychiatric and anxiety issues.
  • Internalized failure: struggling students forced to repeatedly take normed tests (which are designed to fail a certain portion of test-takers) begin to believe they are “bad” or “worthless” students who cannot succeed in school.
  • Grades: some high-stakes tests are included in students’ grades.
  • Graduation requirements: the NAACP has protested Keystone graduation exams, saying they force too many children out of school on the basis of a single score.
  • Altered school culture: schools must empty their walls and hallways for many weeks; classes are under lock-down with limited access to restrooms; some turn to daily announcements or even pep rallies to “prepare” students for testing.

What are you seeing with your children or in your school? What do you think? Come be a part of the conversation tomorrow at our screening of the new documentary, “Standardized,” at 5:30PM in McConomy Auditorium at Carnegie Mellon University. Doors open at 5PM and we’ll have pizza! You can RSVP here to let us know you’re coming.

Did you see that we made the front page of the Post-Gazette today with a story about the movie? [Post-Gazette, 3-10-14] The radio program Essential Pittsburgh also interviewed the film-maker Dan Hornberger (who is an English teacher at Schuylkill Valley High School) on today’s show, which will be re-broadcast this evening on WESA at 8PM. And we are delighted to announce that Mr. Hornberger will be joining us tomorrow for the screening of his movie and will be available to answer questions during the discussion afterwards.

Don’t miss this opportunity to think together about how we can reduce the over-use and misuse of high-stakes testing.

12 thoughts on “High-Stakes for Students

  1. Deer Lakes sent this propaganda on Friday. I replied asking any they don’t want us to encourage our kids for “real” tests for real learning in subjects like math, spelling, English, etc..

    Dear Parents / Guardians of East Union Students,
    Yesterday your child brought home a two page set of papers concerning a special PSSA project we are organizing here at East Union for the testing window at the end of this month.

    The letter explains the exciting idea of allowing families to send a special, secret note of encouragement to your child that he or she won’t see until the first day of testing. Your child will get a chance to read this little note each day before they begin testing. Our teachers and staff are constantly offering encouragement to our students- but it’s also great hear it from someone at home who loves them!

    Please fill out and return just the second page of the packet by folding, taping, stapling or placing in an envelope the form so that he or she can’t peek at the note before the first day of testing. We ask that all letters are sent in by Tuesday, March 18th, 2014 at the latest. These will be organized and ready to give to the students when testing begin.

    Thank you in advance for your help as we show our students how proud of them we all are!

    James Schweinberg

  2. Another high stakes for students problem: Don’t forget that students who are made to sit still at desks for most of the day, especially young students, who are naturally active and energetic, are then labeled as ADHD and drugged.

  3. Am i reading this right? Students have limited access to art and music but, PPS is testing them in these subjects? What happened to the joy in our classrooms?

  4. FIVE DAys out of ten the children are taking some kind of test–there is not time for discussion or worse to learn from the mistakes they make on the test. TESTING IS TELL YOU WHAT YOU DON’T KNOW AND LEARN FROM THAT–the system become increasingly top down (almost facist) that teachers are totally direct almost word for word. THE KIDS I WORK WITH DON’T BEGIN TO UNDERSTAND THE VOCABULARY, THE CONSTRUCT OR THE INTENT OF MOST OF WHAT THEY ARE GIVEN. WHAT A DISASTER WE HAVE CREATED!!!!!

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  8. It is the regular practice of high schools to require focused effort on the “bubble students,” students perceived to be close enough to the cut line to pass the test with extra help. Usually that determination is made by some arbitrary score cutoff, similar to the way the actual high stakes tests scores are set. This help may come from teachers, counselors, administrators, or other staff. It comes in the form of individual tutoring and test prep strategies, and often at the expense of the teacher’s prep period and the student’s elective course for the weeks (or months) leading up to testing.

    If we are to believe that the tests show which students need the most help (yes, it’s a stretch to believe that) then what are we communicating as we ignore needy students and simply assume they’ll be in our “failing” group? That they’re not worth our time or effort? That we can’t help them? What else could the message possibly be? These are students who have been called “Below Basic” or “Basic” for as long as they can remember. Their entire school experience has likely been framed by these labels, and, in their most formative years, the tragic narrative, “you’re not worth our time,” continues.

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