High-Stakes Testing: Accountability and Problems

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  1. 0:35 High-Stakes Testing Defined
  2. 1:33 Accountability Defined
  3. 1:48 Use of High-Stakes Testing Results
  4. 2:02 Advantages of High-Stakes Testing
  5. 2:35 Disadvantages of High-Stakes Testing
  6. 3:32 High-Stakes Testing Guidelines
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Taught by

Melissa Hurst

Do high test scores equal high achievement? Many politicians and educational reformers think the answer is yes. High-stakes standardized testing has become commonplace in American schools. This lesson will define high-stakes testing and accountability and present problems associated with these types of tests.

Educational Reform and High-Stakes Testing

In America, many people, including politicians and educators, are calling for reform of education. Low achievement levels and a limited labor pool of skilled graduates (especially in the science, technology, engineering and math fields) stimulate talks of overhauling education. The solution, for some, is high-stakes testing. This lesson will define high-stakes testing and accountability and also discuss some problems associated with these tests.

High-Stakes Testing Defined

High-stakes testing is defined as the practice of basing major decisions on individual student performance, school performance and school personnel on a single assessment.

The most recent and well-known establishment of standardized high-stakes testing is the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The act requires states to develop standards and assessments for basic skills (such as reading and mathematics) and assess these skills annually. Federal school funding is tied to these assessment results. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 is covered in more detail in another lesson.

High-stakes testing places pressure on schools and teachers to produce high test scores each year or face consequences such as reduced funding, salary restrictions and personnel termination. Administrators and teachers are held accountable for the students' performance in their classrooms and schools.

Accountability Defined

Accountability is defined as an obligation of educators to accept responsibility for students' performance on high-stakes assessments. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 mandates some form of accountability in all schools for grades 3-8.

Use of High-Stakes Testing Results

High-Stakes testing results are regularly used:

  • To determine yearly progress in meeting state-determined standards
  • For promotion to the next grade level
  • For awarding high-school diplomas

Advantages of High-Stakes Testing

Although high-stakes testing is a controversial subject among educators, it does have certain advantages:

  • Tests are based on clearly defined standards and provide important information on students' performance growth and declines
  • Tests can highlight gaps in an individual student's knowledge, classroom achievement gaps or school achievement gaps
  • Tests may also motivate students to improve their performance, especially when test results are tied to high school diplomas and grade promotion

Disadvantages of High-Stakes Testing

The controversy over high-stakes testing deals with how results are used and how reliable results really are in determining what a student knows and is capable of.

Some disadvantages of high-stakes testing include:

  • The tests may lead to inaccurate inferences of student performance, due to non-test factors, such as anxiety and motivation, of the test-taker
  • Teachers and educators are burdened with more standards to teach and end up teaching to the tests (as opposed to more individualized curriculum to meet student needs)
  • High-stakes testing does not assess higher-level critical thinking skills
  • Since each state can determine standards, different test criteria may lead to different overall conclusions on student and school achievement and performance
  • There is an emphasis placed on punishing lower-performing schools and personnel and not enough emphasis on helping those schools improve

High-Stakes Testing Guidelines

National organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, have established guidelines for the appropriate use of high-stakes testing in U.S. schools. The guidelines were set forth in order to promote fairness and avoid unintended consequences of high-stakes testing.

The American Psychological Association recommends that decisions on a student's continued education should not be based on the results of one single test, but a comprehensive set of exams and performance assessments.

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