High Stakes Testing: 5 Reasons It Isn’t Working

“What gets measured gets managed.” This maxim is often attributed the late Peter Drucker, business management consultant and educator. There remains some question about the responsibility for this quote. But what is clear is that Tom Peters, the well-known author and business management guru, echoed Drucker’s words when he said, “What gets measured gets done.” Peters goes on to state  that this “is the soundest management advice I’ve heard.”


Believe it or not, I think these icons of business have a valid point. In an educational setting, what gets attention from school leaders is generally what frames instruction in classrooms.  Or, as Jack Jennings, President of the Center for Education Policy said in 2007, “What gets tested gets taught.” Measuring outcomes is our ally. Knowing how we’re doing day-by-day is a good thing. Right? Isn’t it part of the reiteration feedback loop that compels improvement? But measurement using so called “high stakes” tests, such as that mandated by No Child Left Behind legislation (2001) doesn’t seem to be having the desired effect. After 15 years, feedback remains inadequate. Improvements in reading and math levels across the nation have been minimal. Graduations rates have not increased.  The unintended consequences of testing’s win-lose structure have generated other problems. Stressed out, deflated, and suicidal students. Cheating. Just look at the scandal that erupted in Atlanta when public school educators adjusted student answer documents to – allegedly – lure new business ventures that would insure economic development in the city. It’s not working. Here, I think, are 5 reasons why:

1. High stakes testing targets the symptoms of academic underperformance not the underlying causes. Poverty, social justice, immigration, and the dissolution of the family contribute in a huge way to student underachievement. Educators, by themselves, cannot solve these social problems by teaching reading and math. Until America provides courage of leadership and the National-will to address the root causes of poor performance, there can be no real improvement in test scores.

2. High stakes testing does not consider student competencies, the ways they think, or the application nature of knowledge.  These testing strategies, a product of a bygone era, do not address the way students learn or the  way the world works in our “Conceptual Age.” Although new versions of the test around Common Core Standards include some open ended questions, it does not allow students to think deeply or strategically, work in teams, or allow creative solutions to problem solving. Relevance and authenticity are ignored. These tests effectively omit students who, according to Howard Gardner, possess natural, musical, kinesthetic, and intra- or interpersonal learning styles while playing only to those students who process information through logical-mathematical and linguistic pathways.

3. High stakes testing is punitive. Underperforming schools are taken over by outsiders, have funding cut, administrators removed or reassigned, teachers sacked, and students place in remedial classes where reading and math drills form 80% of the day. Classrooms become knowledge deserts where human-centered content like visual and performing arts and recreational activities are neglected.

4. High stakes testing marginalizes the very constituents it proposes to assist. At $65 per child per test this multi-billion dollar industry has been unable to communicate results parents and educators can understand and use.  Item analysis, that would assist teachers in planning for instruction, is not provided. Parents find the way math and English are taught, tested, and communicated to be confusing and uninformative. In the face of disciplinary action, both have mobilized against these tests and are beginning to opt out in ever greater numbers. But let them tell you why in their own words.

 Students, too, are voicing opposition to the tests.  Listen to a 10-year old tell her story to her local board of education.

5. High stakes testing jeopardizes our democracy. Political bickering has become the norm. In April of last year, Michele Chen (The Nation) summed up this national compulsion to characterize education as a business venture or a sporting event when she said,  “[T]he testing blitzkrieg and the data obsession that fuels it has become a cudgel for neoliberal policymakers to pressure schools to operate more like corporate enterprises than as community institutions.” We do so at the peril of losing America’s most precious resource – our youngsters and their promise of creative contributions. Certainly they are more than what can be measured on an annual test.


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