High Stakes Assessments: Are they worth it?

High stakes assessments are certainly a hot topic at the moment. Whether you’re on the side of their ability to narrow the education gap between privileged and less so students, or in favor of the Obama Administration’s decision to cap the number of standardized tests (and subsequently, he opted his own children out of high-stakes testing), there are a lot of questions worth considering in this weighty topic.

In my personal experience working in a Korean primary school, I have seen a lot of the negatives associated with high stakes assessments. Though according to the OECD, Korean schools score highly across the board in Math, Science, and Literacy, at what cost to the students? Our entire school year was based around teaching to the test. Whether as the teacher I made my class feel as if this was the case – trust me, I tried hard not to – each and every minute core concept reflected specifically to what would be tested on their midterm and final exams.

Each lesson was built specifically around the Korean curriculum tests, and if a teacher strayed but a little, a meeting would be called amongst the grade to immediately switch tactics, or even at times, rewrite the textbook immediately to reflect what SHOULD have been included initially. Needless to say, that lead to a lot of long nights and headaches to the educators who had, in doing their job well and attempting to make engaging and thought provoking lessons that taught beyond the book in advance, now completely change gears, redo lesson plans, and quickly make up for any loss time in each of those lessons.

A question, do you think these new on-the-fly lessons were nearly as comprehensive and provided that intersection of deeper understanding, analysis, synthesis, and production of new learning as the originals? I can say that the teachers tried to do this, but that certainly wasn’t always the case.

Pressure, unsurprisingly, is also huge issue surrounding these tests for both the students and educators. The students are reminded of them almost daily leading up to the exams and asked to study for the assessments for weeks prior as their parents put a lot of pressure on them to perform well. Educators are also accountable for their students scores and if a class performs poorly, the educators will in turn need to have a meeting with the Principal with possible incursions to follow. In fact, this is the first year at my school where bonuses at the end of the school year will reflect student reviews of the teacher, peer reviews, and possibly, midterm and final scores, depending on the first two.

Beyond looking at national scores, it’s hard to say whether student achievement in my particular school was at all linked to this pressure and testing. Not shockingly, students did well on the assessments and that can’t be a surprise given teachers were teaching the tests to them. Additionally, from my personal experience, the English core subject tests were not challenging and asked for nothing more than multiple choice answers in straightforward ways. The Korean tests were more difficult, but overall, I have heard time and again that the school scores are high and impressive, but at what cost? The students go to school in the morning, they go to school in the afternoon, and they go to school into the evening. They have very little time to enjoy their childhood or make friends and isn’t this destructive to their social and emotional well-being?

I contacted my friend who was an educator in a primary school in New Jersey to find out if she had a similar experience, and in some ways, it sounds like she had a much better experience with testing than I had in a Korean school, however, still not perfect.  

In describing the pressure students face, it seems that New Jerseyians are faring better than their Korean equivalents. Additionally, as opposed to negative test scores having a negative impact on the elementary students individually, she explained that students found to be struggling may be entitled to getting additional help from a support teacher. This would lower the student-to-teacher ratio and give students that need additional attention just that. However, she went into much more detail on how the test scores can affect the teachers and schools.

She wrote, “In New Jersey, student performance is one of a number of categories which contribute to the teacher’s overall ‘effectiveness’ score which is calculated at the end of each school year. I believe that student performance accounts for about 20% of the score, so even if students perform poorly, if the teacher has great scores in other areas, it will balance out, but it can still bring scores down significantly.  I think the issue with tying teacher’s performance scores to their students is that teachers are scared about keeping their jobs, rather than take on a group of poorly performing students, they might be inclined to want to teach the “gifted” class a particular year instead, when the struggling students are the ones who need the most support. Even a wonderful, kind-hearted teacher can’t be faulted for worrying about job security and supporting their families, so it is understandable that a teacher could begin to view teaching lower-performing students as undesirable, which is unfortunate and detrimental to the kids who need us most” (M. Maher, personal communication, April 29, 2016).

Clearly, this also meant that teachers were teaching to the test to secure their jobs. She further explained, “A huge issue within the testing process lies within the preparation for the tests, which for all grade levels, usually consists of months of instructional time. Teachers know the expectations are high for these children, and that their performance will also reflect on the teacher’s ‘effectiveness.’ So of course, they want their kids and their school to perform well on assessments, so they do as much as they can to prepare their kids. In many cases, this involves weeks of practice tests, just to prepare children for the format of the tests, which is typically unlike other assessments given throughout the year. Additionally, since the structure of state testing is very formal (children sitting in rows, not allowed to talk, expected to stay seated for extended periods of time) teachers need to prepare their kids for those experiences as well, since that is not what a typical American classroom with elementary age children looks like on a regular day” (M. Maher, personal communication, April 29, 2016).

Considering all of this time is being spent on testing, teachers and schools performances are being judged by testing, shouldn’t these tests be linked to overall student achievement? Achievement and education is our goal, is it not?

Unfortunately, the link to achievement is slim to none. Though No Child Left Behind mandated nationwide standardized testing and lead to a test-driven school system in the USA, the statistics do not prove to have increased student achievement overall. Some studies show small gaps closing between African American and Hispanic students and Caucasian students, though note that the achievement gap has not raised enough in comparison with the pre-existing gap (Pettett 2012). Additional research conducted by Arizona State University, shows that there is little evidence to support any claims that high stakes testing has any correlation to student achievement or outcomes, and actually negatively affect student graduation rates (Nichols, Glass, Berliner, 2012).

So there is clearly another gap that needs to be addressed. The gap between teaching to the test and actually teaching for student development, growth, and achievement, and yet still nationally assess students to measure important data and ensure they are learning the skills they need in order to succeed.

There are a number of alternative strategies available that range from submitting portfolios of students work, stealth assessments, interactive computer assessments, game based assessments, etc., (Kamenetz 2015) that are available to track the data that we can use to measure students in a simpler way and can help to alleviate the pressure that we’re putting on students, teachers, and schools. Assessments can be the end of the story.

But, there is another thing that is abundantly clear. Student assessment scores don’t say everything and teacher’s performance can not be based only on student results. Measures need to be changed so teachers are not in fear of losing their positions because they had students struggle with a section of a standardized test.

There is a call for a complete overhaul of the system so we can move education into future, and educators, parents, and policymakers will need to work together and help decide what that path looks like.  


Fast Facts. (n.d.). National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=1

Kamenetz, A. (2015, January 22). The Past, Present And Future Of High-Stakes Testing. Retrieved April 30, 2016, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2015/01/22/377438689/the-past-present-and-future-of-high-stakes-testing

Nichols, S. L., Glass, G. V., & Berliner, D. C. (2012). High-Stakes Testing and Student Achievement: Updated Analyses with NAEP Data. Education Policy Analysis Archives, 20(20), Retrieved from http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/pdfviewer/pdfviewer?sid=4b6b1046-3469-4e35-a21e-b5e3258d3c1f%40sessionmgr103&vid=4&hid=102

Pettett, W. R. (2012, January 1). The Impact of the No Child Left Behind Act and School Choice on Student Achievement. ProQuest LLC, Retrieved from: http://web.b.ebscohost.com/ehost/detail/detail?vid=3&sid=86904e69-25be-46e1-97d3-f7d8ec01d884%40sessionmgr107&hid=102&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=ED548126&db=eric

Serrano, R. A. (2015, October 24). Obama proposes capping standardized testing at 2% of classroom time.” Los Angeles Times. Retrieved from http://www.latimes.com/local/education/la-na-obama-testing-policy-20151024-story.html

Strauss, V. (2015, April 7). How the Obamas opted their children out of high-stakes standardized tests.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/04/07/how-the-obamas-opted-their-children-out-of-high-stakes-standardized-tests/