To ensure that the standardised tests are taken seriously, even though they have little educational value, educational authorities have attached various ‘high stakes’ rewards and punishments to performance in them. (The impact of high stakes standardised testing is also examined in the section of this website on Standardised Curricula.)
Frederick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute argues that “coercive measures – incentives and sanctions – to ensure that educators teach and students master specific content” are necessary “to compel students and teachers to cooperate”. Attaching high stakes to test results is also a way to ensure that schools teach a centrally controlled curriculum. Standards and high stakes testing not only dictate what should be in the curriculum but also, by taking up most of the time, what should not be in it.
According to Hess, high stakes accountability forces teachers and administrators to make painful changes, such as cutting electives so students spend more time learning the basics. He points out that proponents of coercive accountability reject the idea that poor student performance “is caused largely by factors outside the control of teachers or administrators.”
In the UK ‘failing’ schools – those whose students are under-performing on standardised tests and exams – are threatened with closure. Teachers progression up the pay scales is dependent on their progress in the classroom as measured by pupil performance in tests, among other things.
Also the idea of the failing teacher was introduced in the early 1990s by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), which claimed there were some 15,000 of these failing teachers in the UK.
In ‘high-stakes’ testing in the US, teachers, principals and schools are all evaluated according to student tests and those that do well are rewarded: teachers and schools get bonuses (like sales bonuses in the world of business) and the best performing students get prizes, scholarships and even exemptions from other exams. Some state funding is also dependent on test scores. In California, $700 million was allocated on the basis of average school scores in a single standardised test in 2002.
The idea of helping low performing schools to improve by granting them additional resources is seen as rewarding poor performance. This ignores the fact that in poor neighbourhoods classes are much larger; students may come from families where parents speak English as a second language; parents are often unable to coach their children or pay for tutors; and many students don’t have time for homework because they have to work. Moreover rewarding teachers whose students do well has provided a disincentive for teachers to work in these schools. High stakes testing therefore tends to exacerbate the disadvantages of schools in poor neighbourhoods.
Students who do badly on standardised tests can be held back a grade, have enrolment rejected at a school or be denied a high school diploma. In New York, children as young as third grade cannot proceed to fourth grade without passing standardised tests. In many more states they have to pass a standardised test to get a high school diploma, even if their teachers believe their work is acceptable.
The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act incorporates high stakes national testing into federal legislation.
If you have any examples or updates you would like to contribute please email them to me and I will add them here. Please give references for where you sourced the information.