High Stakes Testing


April 25, 2001

Political leaders throughout America, including President Bush, are calling for a dramatic increase in standardized testing in public schools. The new tests invariably carry high stakes--that is, the test results are linked to serious consequences for students, teachers, and schools.

We believe that this massive experiment, intended to raise educational achievement, is based on misconceptions about the nature and value of testing and about how children develop a true love of learning. We further believe that this experiment may harm children's health by causing excessive anxiety and stress. Health-care professionals and parents already report that test-related stress is literally making many children sick.

At the same time, we know a great deal about the kinds of schools and assessment practices that will best support children's learning and the development of the skills and capacities most needed in the 21st century. Such schools foster strong bonds between students, families, and good teachers. They help students to frame questions intelligently, to pursue and analyze information, and to think with originality, creativity, and concern for others. Yet these schools and practices--as well as some of our most able teachers--are placed increasingly at risk by the proliferation of standardized tests.

Some of the key concerns regarding high-stakes testing are as follows:

The Technology of Testing Is Flawed

Though numerical test scores create an aura of precision, the technology of standardized testing is subject to numerous forms of error. "Tests are not perfect," a committee of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in its exhaustive 1999 study of the appropriate and inappropriate uses of tests, titled High Stakes. "No single test score can be considered a definitive measure of a student's knowledge."

For younger children especially, research shows that standardized test scores are unreliable. At the fourth-grade level, for example, standardized reading test scores vary widely for the same child taking the same test on different days.

Because of the likelihood of error, and the potential for serious harm, the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, the National Council on Measurement in Education, and the publishers of the tests themselves have warned against the danger of inappropriate test use for years. Nevertheless, these professional groups' standards for the ethical use of tests are widely ignored, and there is no effective means of enforcing them.

For example, the use of standardized tests as the sole measure of whether students are promoted, are placed in low-track classes, or will graduate from high school is condemned as insupportable by every professional testing organization; yet graduation tests are required by 28 states, and the practice is rapidly spreading as a means of enforcing "world-class standards."

Test Scores Have Meaning Only in the Context of the Whole Child

Standardized test results can be useful as one measure of a student's knowledge to be compared with other evidence by teachers who know that student's strengths and weaknesses. But the meaning of a test score is always embedded in the larger context of the whole child. This is especially true for the student who "freezes" on tests; the student who reads adequately but slowly and therefore cannot finish the test in the allotted time; the student who understands concepts but has difficulty retrieving detailed facts; the student with learning disabilities; and the student who is just learning English.

It is also essential to consider the child's opportunity to learn--whether the family and school have provided the resources and support necessary for learning. Many classrooms are overcrowded, poorly equipped, and lacking certified teachers, especially in high-poverty schools. Moreover, research indicates that test scores largely reflect the child's family education level and home environment.

In the absence of context, tests may not measure anything meaningful, or have any connection to other more authentic measures of achievement. Some talented students consistently score low on standardized tests; conversely, a high score on a test of facts or formulas does not necessarily measure true understanding. Test scores in childhood have little or no connection to success or productivity in adulthood.

Tying education reform to the single goal of raising standardized test scores seems simple and logical, but ignores unanswered questions about the real effects of such a policy. There is no clear evidence, for example, that higher test scores reflect actual gains in students' learning, either at the individual or the group level.

During the 1980s many states reported dramatic improvements on their own graduation tests, yet results of large-scale national tests showed that there was little or no gain in student learning in those same states. The reason, according to Columbia University Professor Jay Heubert, the director of the National Academy's High Stakes study, is that "test scores often increase, especially during the years after a test is first introduced, because teachers increasingly 'teach to the test,' that is, focus on subject matter and formats that appear on the test."

Evidence Is Growing of Harm to Children's Health

There is growing evidence that the pressure and anxiety associated with high-stakes testing is unhealthy for children--especially young children--and may undermine the development of positive social relationships and attitudes towards school and learning. A resolution adopted by the National Council of Teachers of English in November 2000 states that "high-stakes testing often harms students' daily experience of learning, displaces more thoughtful and creative curriculum, diminishes the emotional well-being of educators and children, and unfairly damages the life-chances of members of vulnerable groups."

Parents, teachers, school nurses and psychologists, and child psychiatrists report that the stress of high-stakes testing is literally making children sick. Kathy Vannini, the elementary school nurse in Longmeadow, Massachusetts, says she dreads the springtime weeks when children must take the MCAS--the lengthy tests now required of Massachusetts students starting in third grade. "My office is filled with children with headaches and stomachaches every day," she reports. "One third-grader was beside himself on the morning of the test--he could not stop sobbing. I've been a school nurse for twenty years, and the stresses on children have worsened in that time. But this testing has greatly increased their anxiety level."

Roy Applegate, president of the California Association of School Psychologists, describes "nerve-racked" students, parents, and even principals suffering excessive anxiety related to high-stakes tests with unrealistically high goals. "I observed a group of low-performing students being given a pep talk by the principal," he said in a recent speech. "As I looked at the faces of the seventh- and eighth-grade students, most appeared terrified, depressed, or disinterested in the principal's words. I think the principal was terrified as well." The school's counselor, he added, reports more and more students with anxiety-related symptoms, sleep problems, drug use, avoidance behaviors, attendance problems, acting out, and the like.

"As psychologists," says Dr. Applegate, "we all learned in Psychology 1A about the inverse relationship between anxiety and performance: small and even moderate levels of anxiety can be profitable, while excess anxiety degrades performance. Are we creating excess anxiety for some in our efforts to create accountability for all? Are we prepared to address the consequences of this excessive anxiety?"

Parents and teachers are caught in the middle. Many believe the tests are unreliable measures of students' knowledge and ability, yet feel powerless to change the system. Fearing for their children's future chances of success, some parents put added pressure on students to get higher scores. But getting high scores often requires knowledge that is beyond the children's developmental level. "I am seeing more families where schoolwork that is developmentally inappropriate for the cognitive levels of children is causing emotional havoc at home," says Dr. Marilyn Benoit of Howard University, president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "The pressure on teachers to teach to tests and outperform their colleagues is translating into stressful evenings for parents and children."

More High-Stakes Testing Means More Dropouts, Fewer Good Teachers

Promotion and graduation policies based on high-stakes testing will very likely result in huge increases in the numbers of poor and minority students dropping out of school. The adoption of such tests in Massachusetts has already resulted in a steady increase in the number of African-American and Latino dropouts, according to a recent analysis of data from the state department of education.

"For minority students and English-language learners, there is clear evidence that initial failure rates on tests embodying 'world-class' standards would be extremely high--about 80 percent," according to Professor Heubert. Students with disabilities are another group at risk from high-stakes testing policies. For them, Heubert notes, "it is reasonable to assume that initial failure rates on such tests would also be very high: in the 75 to 80 percent range."

Other research suggests that increased standardized testing contributes to the flight of good teachers from public schools. Children in low-income areas, where test scores are lowest for reasons mostly unrelated to the quality or dedication of the teachers, have the most to lose. Their teachers are the ones most likely to be branded as failures by high-stakes testing policies.

In a survey of members of the Texas State Reading Association, 85 percent of respondents agreed that "the emphasis on TAAS [the mandatory Texas tests] is forcing some of the best teachers to leave teaching." Moreover, it is unlikely that we will attract innovative, bright young people to the teaching profession by turning it into a purely technical job in which most decisions about what is taught are completely outside of their control.

Standardization Is the Enemy of Effective Public Schools

Higher education leaders have recently begun to speak out about the damage to children and schools caused by overemphasizing standardized tests. "Higher education is not dependent on the information that students bring with them to college as much as on how well they know how to pursue knowledge," wrote Shirley Strum Kenny, president of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, in the New York Times. "The ability to frame questions intelligently is now far more important than the ability to parrot some answers."

The standardization of curricula and teaching that is the inevitable result of high-stakes testing is antithetical to a fundamental American principle--that important decisions about what and how children are taught will be made locally, by the parents, teachers, and other community members who know the children and their needs. Moreover, pressure to raise test scores above all other educational goals has the effect of impoverishing the curriculum. Schools across the country have already eliminated advanced electives, music and art classes, science classes, physical education, and study of current events in part because these subjects do not appear on high-stakes standardized tests.

"Standardized tests aimed at enforcing centrally prescribed curriculum and pedagogy will severely limit if not kill the innovation and exploration necessary to help all children achieve at high standards," says Deborah Meier, the MacArthur Award-winning founder of the Central Park East schools in East Harlem. "This is above all true for those that traditional schools do not serve well now. I can name several hundred successful, innovative schools whose work would be harmed by required high-stakes testing--precisely the schools that have beaten the odds when it comes to the much talked about achievement gap."

"Excesses of the standards movement have promoted lock-step education," School Superintendent Michael V. McGill of Scarsdale, New York, told the New York Times. "They've diverted attention from important local goals, highlighted simplistic and sometimes inappropriate tests, needlessly promoted similarity in curriculum and teaching. To the extent they've caused education to regress to a state average, they've undermined excellence."

There Is an Alternative

Defenders of standardized testing often acknowledge its shortcomings but argue that it is the best measure we have. In fact, innovative public schools across the country are already using fairer and more accurate alternative measures--just as private schools have done for years. They assess students' progress by looking at their actual achievements--their writing, their oral presentations, their science experiments, their ways of attacking real-world problems, their artwork and music, their ability to collaborate with others. In some schools, these assessments are done by panels including teachers, parents, and members of the community. This more rigorous, contextualized assessment requires more time and effort than a standardized test--but it is happening, in hundreds of small schools.

Children deserve to be judged as whole human beings, embodying the full range of human intelligences and abilities. Such assessments should be, in the words of the National PTA's position statement on testing, "performance based, reflecting the different kinds of knowledge and skills that a student is expected to acquire."

A Call to Action

In light of the questionable benefits of high-stakes testing and its potential for long-term harm, we call on President Bush, the Congress, and educational leaders to rethink the current rush to make American children take even more standardized tests.

We call on Congress to put off making any new federal requirements for standardized testing of public school students until the health effects of such policies have been studied.

We further call on Congress to protect children by prohibiting the growing practice of making high-stakes decisions about individual students' promotion, graduation, or placement in low-track classes on the basis of a single test score. This would put the force of law behind the currently unenforced ethical standards of the testing profession and the conclusions of the National Academy of Sciences High Stakes study.

Finally, we call on Congress to provide incentives for states and localities to develop alternative performance-based assessments that measure not just the ability to memorize facts but also the capacity for original thinking, real-world problem-solving, perseverance, and social responsibility. Such assessment will hold real meaning for students, parents, schools, and communities.

Endorsed by: (Endorsement of this statement does not indicate membership in the Alliance for Childhood. Organizations included for identification purposes only.)

Marilyn Benoit, M.D, child and adolescent psychiatrist, Howard University Hospital; president-elect of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry

Robert Coles, M.D., professor of psychiatry and medical humanities, Harvard Medical School, and professor of social ethics at the Harvard Graduate School of Education; author of The Moral Intelligence of Children: How to Raise a Moral Child

David Elkind, professor of child development, Tufts University; former president of the National Association for the Education of Young Children; author of The Hurried Child

Sandra Gadsden, R.N., school nurse, Worthington (Ohio) Public Schools; member, board of directors, National Association of School Nurses and Ohio Association of School Nurses

Howard Gardner, Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education, Harvard Graduate School of Education, author of Intelligence Reframed: Multiple Intelligences for the 21st Century

Mary Ginley, Longmeadow, Mass., teacher for 32 years, 1998 Massachusetts Teacher of the Year; adjunct faculty member, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Daniel Goleman, author, Emotional Intelligence; co-chair, Consortium for Research on Emotional Intelligence, Rutgers University

Stanley Greenspan, M.D., child psychiatrist, author of Playground Politics: Understanding the Emotional Life of the School-Age Child.

Asa Hilliard III, Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Urban education, Georgia State University; former member of the American Psychological Association's Testing Committee Editor, Testing African American Students

Harold Howe II, former U.S. Commissioner of Education; Senior Lecturer Emeritus, Harvard Graduate School of Education

Alfie Kohn, Belmont, Mass., lecturer and author, The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards

Jonathan Kozol, Byfield, Mass., author, Ordinary Resurrections: Children in the Years of Hope, Amazing Grace and Savage Inequalities

Shirley Strum Kenny, president, State University of New York, Stony Brook

Diane Levin, professor of education, Wheelock College, author, Remote Control Childhood

Yeou-Cheng Ma, M.D., Queens, NY, developmental pediatrician and musician

Deborah W. Meier, principal, Mission Hill School, Roxbury, Mass., and founder, Central Park East Schools, East Harlem, New York; author, The Power of Their Ideas: Lessons for America from a Small School in Harlem

Sonia Nieto, professor of education, University of Massachusetts, Amherst; author, The Light in Their Eyes: Creating Multicultural Learning Communities

Mary Pipher, psychologist and author, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, and The Shelter of Each Other: Rebuilding Our Families

Alvin F. Poussaint, M.D., director, the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center and clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School Co-author, Lay My Burden Down: Unraveling Suicide and the Mental Health Crisis Among African-Americans

David K. Scott, chancellor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Dorothy G. Singer, senior research scientist and co-director, Family Television Research and Consultation Center, Yale University

Jerome L. Singer, professor of psychology and child study, director of graduate studies in psychology, and co-director, Family Television Research and Consultation Center, Yale University 

Theodore R. Sizer, University Professor Emeritus, Brown University; founder, Coalition of Essential Schools; author, Horace's School

Thomas Sobol, Christian A. Johnson Professor of Outstanding Educational Practice, Teachers College, Columbia University; former New York State Commissioner of Education (1987-1995) 

Robert J. Sternberg, IBM Professor of Psychology and Education and director, Center for the Psychology of Abilities, Competencies, and Expertise (PACE Center), Yale University

Miren Uriarte, interim director of the Mauricio Gastón Institute for Latino Community Development and Public Policy at the University of Massachusetts at Boston; author of the 2000 report, Latino Students in Massachusetts Public Schools

Mickey VanDerwerker, co-founder of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform SOLs (Standards of Learning), a network of over 5,000 parents; vice-chair of the Bedford County (VA) School Board

Diana Chapman Walsh, president, Wellesley College

Thomas L. Young, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics, University of Kentucky School of Medicine; member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on School Health