High-stakes tests—what do they tell us?
by Glenn Gifford, Donald C. Orlich | © Washington State University
The current enthusiasm for contemporary American school criticism and reform can be traced to the 1983 federally sponsored report, A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Its most infamous line states, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre instructional performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."
Such political rhetoric is, of course, nonsense, as we will show with international and national data.
What is not being reported?
Media reports tend to show that school children in the United States are behind their peers in other countries. Yet in 1992, the data for eighth-grade math performance show the world's "top 20" included 12 U.S. states. In 1998, 13-year-old science students in 14 states ranked in the top 15 worldwide. Washington State was not included in the 1992 or 1998 studies. However, Washington was in a 1999 study showing that only six nations beat Iowa and Nebraska in eighth-grade math. In science, Singapore alone scored above 14 US. states.
Washington State children would rank in sixth place in the world for science and 13th for math. Within the U.S., the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council ranked the Evergreen State number two behind Wisconsin for K-12 education. You want world-class standards? Well, you have them.
Oh, yes, let us not forget the July 2001 laudatory announcement in College Board News. American high school students in physics and calculus, who passed advanced-placement exams went on to outperform students in the rest of the world. This showed dramatically that our best are clearly "at the top of the world in academic achievement," stated Lee Jones, executive director of the College Board's Advanced Placement Program.
"Reform" as high-stakes testing
Most states have developed high-stakes tests that punish children and schools if they do not meet some arbitrary standard or the never-defined "educational accountability." Unacknowledged is the evidence from 28 states with high-stakes tests-Washington excluded-demonstrating that between 1993 and 2000 student learning after testing was at the same level or at lower levels than it was before the high-stakes policies were implemented. As researchers in Colorado and Massachusetts report, student achievement actually goes down when high-stakes tests are instituted, or randomly fluctuates up and down yearly.
Poverty, minority status, and high-stakes tests
Researchers are virtually unanimous-internationally, nationally, and in the state of Washington-that family poverty is a primary determinant of student achievement. Childhood poverty predicts poor achievement on high-stakes tests. Attributes of poverty that negatively impact schooling outcomes are inadequate nutrition, a single-parent family structure, and alienation.
Minority status of a child is a strong predictor of poor performance on high-stakes tests, especially for English-language learners. In most cases, minority status is coupled with poverty. Applying the fairness doctrine-"do no child harm"-this is a strong indictment of high-stakes tests. Policy makers are penalizing children for conditions over which these youngsters have no control, ignoring the real social problems.
The Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL)
The Washington state legislature mandated the WASL as a high-stakes test in 1996. This test battery has been both praised and criticized. The Washington Education Association contends that the test is neither a valid nor a reliable assessment. The test certainly has no predictive validity. Well, not entirely. As one researcher reported, students who flunk the WASL at grade 4 have a one-in-33 chance of passing it at grade 7. These results and four years of such testing are interpreted as evidence that the WASL is creating aversive educational consequences. Fourth-grade students are apparently exhibiting characteristics of learned helplessness, a specific consequence of psychological stress-in this case, the stress of being given an impossible task. With flunk rates ranging from 76 percent for minority children to an overall rate of 50 percent for nearly all children, the WASL may indeed be perceived as an impossible task. This perception creates aversive test anxiety, the consequences of which become clear when one analyzes the yearly WASL reports.
We assert that tests should have both formative and diagnostic functions. Tests should provide explicit feedback to both students and their teachers, so that a provision for correction may be initiated or appropriate placement decisions made. The feedback that is provided by the WASL does not inform students or teachers on what specific essential learning in reading, mathematics, writing, science, and listening has or has not been mastered, or how they could reach mastery if they are "not meeting standard." The WASL does not promote student achievement, since the teacher, student, or parent does not have access to the actual test taken. In fact, the testing company, NCS Pearson of New Jersey and London, destroys each physical test booklet after it is computer-scanned. There is no way a teacher can analyze student errors. Hence any chance a teacher has to remediate student deficiencies is negated.
Calculating the effect-size statistic, we found that there is no overall effect on student achievement as a consequence of mandatory WASL testing. Our analysis included WASL scores from 1998 to 2002. Yearly comparisons reveal no effect. However, comparing 1998 to 2002, a small positive effect appears. We calculated the cost to gain one-percentile improvement on the WASL exceeds $10,000,000 per year.
For any test to have impact on instruction and learning it must provide useful, relevant, immediate feedback to users. Further, tests must be reliable and valid. The current genre of high-stakes tests meets none of these criteria. We call on all education policy-makers to question high-stakes tests, continued use of arbitrary standards, and yearly achievement targets.
Don Orlich, a member of the College of Education faculty at Washington State University from 1967 to 1996, serves as professor emeritus in the College of Sciences, Science Mathematics Engineering Education Center. His specialty is in curriculum and instruction, with emphasis on science education. He is co-author of Teaching Strategies: A Guide to Effective Instruction, 7th edition, Houghton Mifflin, 2004 (his 18th book).
Gifford, a doctoral candidate in Educational Leadership and Counseling Psychology at WSU, specializes in counseling psychology and test construction and analysis.
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