“A high-stakes test is any test used to make important decisions about students, educators, schools, or districts, most commonly for the purpose of accountability—i.e., the attempt by federal, state, or local government agencies and school administrators to ensure that students are enrolled in effective schools and being taught by effective teachers.”23
The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) passed by the Bush administration “dramatically increased the prevalence and stakes of standardized testing for public school children in elementary, middle, and high school by requiring annual testing of statewide academic achievement assessments in the areas of reading and mathematics during Grades 3 through 8 and once in high school.”18 More recently, the Obama administration’s ‘Race to the Top’, a national competition between states for education funding, requires, among other things, teacher evaluations based on test scores and an adherence to the Common Core standards. Both of these programs “rely heavily on standardized testing… and [have] produced a massive demoralization of educators…the closure of many public schools, especially in poor and minority districts… and the near-collapse of public education in urban districts like Detroit and Philadelphia, as public schools are replaced by privately managed charter schools.”14
These tests directly influence student achievement, as many states have graduation and retention policies reliant on standardized test scores. Several studies have shown, however, that graduation tests increase dropout rates for low-achieving students while not actually improving learning for the other students. High-stakes tests place an unnecessary amount of stress on students, leading to low self-esteem, anxiety, and a disengagement in school.
“NCLB test scores are publicly reported and linked to rewards and sanctions, such as school funding, administration, and employment decisions, making this testing high-stakes in nature for educators and communities.”18
High-stakes testing, however, directly impacts educators and schools as well. Many of these standardized tests are used to assess teacher ability as well as school performance, rating teachers and schools with low scores as ‘failing’ and ‘underperforming’. Such schools are then susceptible to school closure or privatization solely due to test scores. As a result, many teachers and administrators have tailored their curriculums towards these standardized tests, a phenomenon known as ‘teaching to the test’, eliminating a lot of the creativity and autonomy in creating their own lesson plans.
High-stakes testing serves to reproduce the inequity of the public school system, by benefiting students with many opportunities and monetary resources and harming students with little to no school resources. Minority students, mostly African American and Latino, primarily suffer as a result of this testing, as these populations tend to be concentrated in underfunded, urban schools. Opponents of high-stakes testing argue that “test scores are heavily influenced by socioeconomic status.”14 Many organizations oppose the use of such high-stakes tests in making crucial educational decisions due to the serious validity and fairness issues of these tests. Grassroots organizations, consisting of students, parents, educators, and community members, play a key role in the fight against high-stakes testing.
“Standardized tests are normed on a bell curve. The upper half of the curve has an abundance of those who grew up in favorable circumstances, with educated parents, books in the home, regular medical care, and well-resourced schools. Those who dominate the bottom half of the bell curve are the kids who lack those advantages, whose parents lack basic economic security, whose schools are overcrowded and under-resourced.”14
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