And the impact on school climate

High scores—not high standards—have become the holy grail.
— Barbara Kantrowitz and Daniel McGinn [43]

Excessive emphasis on testing can lead to low teacher morale, a narrowed curricular focus, a diminished sense of professionalism among teachers and unethical placement practices.
— Larry Lashway [44]

Sometimes students who are not ready to show improvement and growth in the traditional assessment measures can be “caught” showing growth in other areas—areas that are many times taken for granted and go unnoticed and unmeasured.
—Kristen Nelson [45]

We are not holding our profession accountable for learning, only for achievement on high-stakes tests.
—Martin G. Brooks and Jacqueline Grennon Brooks [46]

Be a hero, take a zero.
—Students protesting high-stakes testing [47]

Imagine going to the doctor’s for a physical. A few measurements are taken and afterwards, you receive a report with your height and weight, and the percentiles for each, telling you how you compare with others your age. How much does this information tell you about your overall health? Does it indicate how your body is strong or where it needs support? How it responds to vitamins, exercise, or stress? Are the measurements reliable? Would a “good score” reflect the clinic’s competence? Would a bad one mean you were sick?

If you are truly concerned about this issue, you probably would not be satisfied with such limited information, and would want to know what’s going on with your cholesterol, blood pressure, hormones, internal organs, reflexes, eyesight, teeth, and anything else that might have an impact on your physical well being. But wait— there’s more! To take this analogy one step further, now imagine that your doctors would no longer be able to practice if too many of their patients had “scores” below the range deemed acceptable! How would this pressure affect their priorities, not to mention their practices?

Girl taking a testAssessment has always been a part of education, and standardized tests have been around for decades. When used as a tool for determining gaps in our students’ understanding or to help us plan subsequent instructional strategies, their value is irrefutable. When justified as a motivational tool, the waters get a little murky, shifting the emphasis from the process of learning to the consequences of performing. And when those consequences begin to threaten students’ promotion or graduation, educators’ salaries and job security, district funding, schools’ autonomy, and even real estate values,48 testing— specifically, high-stakes standardized testing— can become downright dangerous.

A preoccupation with test results can have tremendous costs, instructionally and emotionally. Some students complain of a “test-taking frenzy” going on in their school, as well as a feeling that “real learning is being shoved aside as teachers focus on boosting test scores.” [49] A California principal noted a shift from “the kind of hands-on, learning-by-doing teaching we did in the past” to a concentration on teaching to the test. [50] The pressure has led many an educator to present content and instruction to children who lacked the prerequisite skills needed to successfully incorporate the new knowledge. One teacher, doing a lesson on complex operations with fractions, had large numbers of learners who could not add or subtract whole numbers. When asked by her supervisor why she was teaching over her students’ heads, she threw up her hands and said, “It’s on the test!” Of course, by test time, her students could neither do the problems on fractions nor much of anything else. Teaching to the test, in this case, served no one.

This practice tends to breed a new version of the Three R’s, or what Joseph Renzulli, of the National Center on the Gifted and Talented, calls the “ram, remember, regurgitate” curriculum. [51] This kind of “learning for the test” results in a shallow, disconnected and easily-forgotten understanding of content, claims Linda McNeil, professor of education, undermining a solid academic curriculum. [52] Larry Lashway concurs, noting that the current accountability movement has a tendency “to drive non-tested content out of the curriculum.” [53] And with most schools only beginning to get their curricular programs in sync with their state’s exams, [54] one might wonder at the potential gap between what is being assessed and what is actually being taught—and learned—in any given classroom. Even districts that boast rising test scores may have little actual learning to back up the numbers. Such increases may simply reflect the alignment of the district’s curriculum with the tests or local spending on improving test-taking skills. Research in one state suggests that test-score gains simply indicate that students are getting better at test-taking, rather than offering evidence of increased learning. [55]

It’s hard to think of anything being “standardized” across the fifty-five million kids in U.S. public schools, whether we’re talking about reading skills or shoe size. Many teachers question whether it’s reasonable to expect every individual in say, third grade, to know a particular set of skills simply because a number of others their age have mastered them (or because some bureaucrat or test publisher decided that those skills constituted appropriate knowledge for every child in that grade). TestingSuch a large population would certainly present vast differences in early support, readiness, personal experiences, cultural values, talents, abilities (and disabilities), skills for demonstrating knowledge, and test-taking competence (and confidence). And with the typical emphasis on linguistic and logical-mathematical abilities, some experts note that while test results can be valuable in measuring a student’s understanding in these areas, they “capture only a portion of student talents and achievements,” ignoring students’ strength, weaknesses, and progress in other types of intelligence (such as spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, naturalist, intrapersonal, and interpersonal intelligences) as well as higher-order thinking skills in the areas they do test. [56] Plus, there is value in the unmeasurable. Principal Aaron Trummer cites an Irish proverb which warns, “You can’t tell the quality of a sheep by weighing it.” He mentions that even the best interpretation of a student’s scores doesn’t do justice to his or her talents. “Creativity, problem solving, and intellect don’t show up on tests.” School success, claims Elliot W. Eisner, is far less evident in test scores than it is in “the kinds of ideas children are willing to explore on their own, the kinds of critical skills they are able to employ on tasks outside the classrooms, and the strength of their curiosity in pursuing the issues they will inevitably encounter in the course of their lives.” [57] As teacher Mary O’Brien Merrigan remarks, “standardized tests measure only the bottom line, not the learning process.” [58]

The impact of testing policies on emotional safety and morale— to students and staff— can be enormous. “We can kill children’s enthusiasm for learning with pressure to perform well on these tests,” says New Jersey educator Bonnie-Ann McLain. [59] And if students are feeling “panicked” or “under constant jeopardy” [60] because of standardized tests, what is this stress doing to performance, not to mention learning? In many parts of the country, testing has shifted from its original diagnostic purpose and is becoming increasingly threatening and punitive. One administrator told me that she had to reschedule an inservice training because the morale of her entire staff was decimated when a large area newspaper published a list of schools in their district, ranked according to the students’ performance on the standardized exams. While reading the paper at home over the weekend, they (and the rest of the region’s subscribers) discovered that their school’s standing was near the bottom. Instead of devoting the day to professional development, she was scrambling to put together a program which focused, instead, on damage control.

Taking a testTo avoid the possibility of facing such public scrutiny and humiliation, much less the kinds of sanctions that would affect the school’s autonomy or finances, some educators have resorted to strategies that run the gamut from strained ethics to outright criminal tampering. In recent years, teachers and administrators have been accused of— and in some instances prosecuted for— encouraging students to cheat on exams to drive scores up, excluding low-scoring students from the tests to raise overall results, giving students copies of earlier versions of exams to study, allowing children extra time to finish the tests, or pointing out incorrect answers and urging students to change them. [61] In some corners, even the idea of teaching to the test is considered a form of cheating, although there are those who defend this practice as a positive educational strategy. [62] Some say that the horror stories are inevitable, but what kind of priorities are we modeling for kids? Even young students are on to these tactics. What are they to make of incongruity between the “win-at-all-costs” messages underlying a school’s lust for high scores and the character posters and ethics slogans that adorn their school’s hallways?

Longtime education reformer, Theodore Sizer claims that tests are an easy way out, a popular way to judge a school’s effectiveness because “people are lazy. They’re not asking questions.” Tests, he claims, “have this façade of toughness and objectivity.” And regardless of the impact these exams might have on kids and educators, they “put no burden on the people who most often demand them— the politicians.” [63] Longtime teacher and anti-test activist Susan Ohanian has been tracking what she calls “goofy test items,” which are often sent to her by teachers who place themselves at great risk by speaking out against the tests. Arguing, among other things, that the content of the test often uses “wildly inappropriate reading levels” and content, that the design is “unprofessional, simplistic, and error ridden” and that their purpose serves “corporate-led education reform” agendas and the needs of politicians looking for a quick fix, Ohanian pushes for greater media and public awareness of how dangerous and destructive standardized tests can be. She also makes a great case for spending the millions siphoned off by tests and testing on resources and facilities that would be of far greater benefit to kids who need them, and for focusing on the needs of individual students instead of seeing kids as an “undifferentiated mass into which information can be poured.” [64] But even in the face of relentless testing, many schools (and individual teachers) are turning to more sophisticated assessment alternatives, such as rubrics, portfolios, conferencing, oral defense, narrative reports, anecdotal records, and student presentations or exhibits, to provide a broader picture of student performance, talent and mastery than a simple letter grade or a score from a standardized test can provide. [65]

If standardized tests must remain a part of the educational reality, then let’s make sure they’re done right, advises Nicholas Lemann. He suggests “using good tests, making sure they’re administered under fair, secure conditions.” [66] Focusing on testtheir diagnostic value and knocking off the tendency to use them punitively or competitively would be a real nice touch, too. (Withholding funding from the lowest achieving schools makes about as much sense as withholding food from the hungriest children, especially when policymakers attach the caveat that the kids won’t be fed until their hunger “improves.”) Unfortunately, much of the best of what schools can accomplish— such as encouraging, inspiring, supporting, connecting with or believing in learners, for example— is rather hard to quantify. Likewise for many of the ways in which kids learn and grow. Is there space in this drive for accountability for an emotionally-safe or “caring” curriculum, one that can have immense value even if, numerically, it’s rather hard to pin down? Pulliam and Van Patten go back to the idea of preparing children for accelerating change, reiterating the inadequacy of attempting to meet future needs with curricula and practices developed to serve the past. [67] Being prepared for an unknown and uncertain world demands flexibility, creativity, openness to change and the ability to find out— skills that will also challenge our fascination with measurement and assessment.

Once again we need to ask ourselves what we in the educational community are doing here? What, indeed, do we value, respect, and honor? Author Marlow Ediger urges us to remember the value of “putting people first,” valuing students above their cognitive accomplishments. [68] After all, numbers are nice, but let’s not lose our perspective, or forget the fact that behind the numbers are a whole lot of individual learners— and a whole lot of ways to learn and appraise learning.

Update, Oct. 30, 2005

I’ve been on the road working with teachers for much of the past 14 months. More and more, I’m seeing schools driven by academics and standards. I was in one school that had a countdown to THE TEST on the board in each classroom I visited, teachers pressuring kids, “Come on, you have to learn this: It’s on THE TEST!” And this not an hour after a keynote to the staff in which I had specifically pointed out what a ludicrous and pointless sentence this is.

I have heard kids asking, “Well, if this isn’t on the test, why do I have to learn it?” which, in my mind is a legitimate question in the context of the messages we seem to be giving kids and parents about our priorities anymore.

Taking a testI’m seeing good teachers leaving the profession because they’ve lost discretion in what and how they can teach, discouraged by the continual shift away from people and process toward content and quantification, and disgusted by the pressure to raise scores at all costs. More frightening and discouraging, I’m seeing people coming into to this profession, young people who have bought into the notion that they’re there to teach to the test, believing that their kids wouldn’t be nearly as motivated or that they wouldn’t be nearly as effective as teachers without the tests to inspire them.

Nonetheless, I’m sticking to my story, and to my faith in the notion that if we connect with the kids in our care, if we teach them what they need, in a way that makes sense to their nervous systems, and if we provide a challenging, safe instructional environment, these myopic, moronic measures of such a tiny bit of what we do, these tests will take care of themselves.

—Jane Bluestein

[43] Barbara Kantrowitz and Daniel McGinn, “When Teachers are Cheaters,” the MSNBC Web site, June 11, 2000. Available: [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.newsweek.com/news/419167.asp?cp1=1
[44] Larry Lashway, “Accountability,” Research Roundup, published by the National Association of Elementary School Principals, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Fall 1999), 3. Note: This was the starting premise of research by Mack McCary, Joe Peel and Wendy McCloskey in “Using Accountability as a Lever for Changing the School Culture” (Greensboro, NC: SouthEastern Regional Vision for Education, 1997).
[45] Kristen Nelson, “Measuring the Intangibles,” Classroom Leadership, an ASCD Newsletter for K-12 Classroom Teachers, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Feb. 2000): 1, 8.
[46] Martin G. Brooks and Jacqueline Grennon Brooks, “The Courage to be Constructivist,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Nov. 1999): 21.
[47] According to one principal I interviewed, this was the slogan for a number of high-achieving Massachusetts students who deliberately failed the achievement tests in their district to protest the pressure to excel and the importance assigned to these tests.
[48] Kantrowitz and McGinn; Daniel McGinn, “The Big Score,” Newsweek. (Sept. 6, 1999): 47; Sue Rardin, “Getting Tough on the Tough Teach,” Trust, Vol. 2, No. 4 (Fall, 1999): 16; Evan Thomas and Pat Wingert, “Bitter Lessons,” the MSNBC Web site, June 11, 2000. Available: [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.newsweek.com/news/419168.asp.
[49] McGinn, 47. This report cited a group of high-achieving 11th graders who deliberately failed portions of a standardized test in protest, however it reflected feedback from a number of students I interviewed or surveyed.
[50] Ibid, 50.
[51] Kantrowitz and McGinn.
[52] Ibid.
[53] Lashway, 1.
[54] McGinn, 51.
[55] Brooks and Brooks, 20; also Walter Haney and George Madaus, “Searching for Alternatives to Standardized Tests: Whys, Whats and Whithers,” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 70, No. 9 (May 1989): 684.
[56] Tom Hoerr, “Reporting What We Respect,” Classroom Leadership, an ASCD Newsletter for K-12 Classroom Teachers, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Feb. 2000): 2-3; also Kay Burke, The Mindful School: How to Assess Authentic Learning: Revised Edition (Arlington Heights: IRI/SkyLight Training and Publishing, Inc., 1994), 21.
[57] Elliot W. Eisner, “What Really Counts in Schools,” Educational Leadership. Vol. 48, No. 5 (Feb. 1991): 11.
[58] Contribution in “Testing and Student Success: Helping Parents Understand Standardized Test Result,” Classroom Leadership, an ASCD Newsletter for K-12 Classroom Teachers, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Feb. 2000): 7.
[59] Ibid.
[60] McGinn, 51.
[61] Kantrowitz and McGinn; Lemann; and Thomas and Wingert.
[62] McGinn, 50.
[63] “Tests Are an Easy Way Out,” interview with Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer, Newsweek (Sept. 6, 1999), 51.
[64] Susan Ohanian, “Silence Ain’t Golden: Spread the Word.” (Sept. 26, 2000). Available: Interversity Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://206.68.56.30/events/resisting_conf/texts/Ohanian1000.php; Gary S. Stager, “An Interview with Susan Ohanian,” Curriculum Administrator, April 1999 issue. (May 10, 1999). Available: Gary Stager’s Web site, [Internet, WWW], Address: http://www.stager.org/articles/ohanian.html.
[65] Heidi Goodrich Andrade, “Using Rubrics to Promote Thinking and Learning,” Educational Leadership, Vol. 57, No. 5 (Feb. 2000), 13; Anne Davies, “Seeing the Results for Yourself: A Portfolio Primer,” Classroom Leadership, an ASCD Newsletter for K-12 Classroom Teachers, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Feb. 2000): 4; Hoerr, 2; Kantrowitz and McGinn; Kathie Nunley, “In Defense of the Oral Defense,” Classroom Leadership, an ASCD Newsletter for K-12 Classroom Teachers, Vol. 3, No. 5 (Feb. 2000), 6.
[66] Lemann.
[67] Pulliam and Van Patten, 1, 255-256.
[68] Marlow Ediger, “Caring and the Elementary Curriculum.” Report, Truman State University, Kirksville, MO, 1998.

Excerpt from Chapter 9, “Brave New World: The Changing Role of the School,” from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools (© Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc., 2001). This excerpt was copied taken from the final draft of the manuscript. The material in the book may vary slightly.

Related Links:

Other excerpts from Creating Emotionally Safe Schools:

Pretty and Popular: Discrimination and Belonging
Spare the Rod (Problems with Corporal Punishment)
Brave New World: The Changing Role of Schools
Bearing Witness: Support for Children in Crisis
Stressful or Painful School Events and Experiences that Can Compromise Emotional Safety

Test Time: Bringing Balance and Sanity to Our Schools
No Child Left Behind Parody: The Football Version!

Why I am Against High-Stakes Testing, blog by KM, posted March 28, 2014

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