What's Wrong with High-Stakes Testing?

  • 18 March, 2008

It’s not uncommon for educators to oppose high-stakes testing. Teachers and principals have personal reasons to be against such approaches: high stakes tests are more likely to be used to pressure them than on the kids who they serve. University-based scholars also tend to be against testing, but that isn’t surprising as most university professors are politically liberal and most education accountability plans emanate from conservative governments. While professors may have a knee-jerk reaction to high-stakes tests, this in no way disparages the high-quality scholarly analyses of such tests, such as the one that carried out for the National Academy of Sciences: http://www.nap.edu/openbook.php?isbn=0309062802).

  Lots of folks figure I must be for high-stakes testing: I was appointed to the Board of Advisors of the National Institute for Literacy by President George W. Bush, I served on the National Reading Panel, and I am very interested in seeing reading scores improve. That isn’t the case, however. I’m against high-stakes testing for a simple reason: for the most part, it hasn’t worked. Various analyses show that such tests narrow curriculum, encourage students to leave school early, reduce the amount of instructional time, and have not led to improved reading achievement.

  Politicians and taxpayers believe that schools are not doing a good job. I agree with them as our kids aren’t learning enough. The politicos are certain that if teachers and principals would try harder, then things would change. And that’s where I disagree. For the most part, teachers and principals are trying very hard. The reason testing hasn’t motivated higher achievement is that higher achievement is not an issue of motivation. Too few teachers know how to teach reading effectively. In many cases, quality instructional materials are not available. Schools are often disorganized and fail to provide teachers with sufficient support.

  Motivating folks to try harder when an outcome depends mainly on determination is a good idea. Pressuring them to do better when they don’t know how or lack the necessary tools is a losing strategy. I would gladly see states and the feds move their accountability dollars into professional development, after-school programs, truancy prevention, and other things that can work. High stakes testing is a motivation strategy. So are teacher incentive plans. Neither is likely to improve students’ reading, however, until teachers have sufficient knowledge and support so they can expend the right extra effort. That means that someday I may support test-based incentive pay or high-stakes testing, as my opposition isn’t political, it is about effectiveness. Our literacy needs are real: we can’t afford to continue to waste hundreds of millions of dollars, and millions of children’s education hours on a losing strategy.


See what others have to say about this topic.

What Are your thoughts?

Leave me a comment and I would like to have a discussion with you!

Comment *

What's Wrong with High-Stakes Testing?


One of the world’s premier literacy educators.

He studies reading and writing across all ages and abilities. Feel free to contact him.