Is High-Stakes Testing Highly Unrealistic?


Lois Christie | Ananda Mahto | Dawn Parrish | Christopher Wood
Standards-Based Curriculum and Instruction

Testing has always been commonplace in schools—and while students have had to take tests for years, the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test) was first administered in 1926; high-stakes testing is largely the result of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The intention of standardized tests is to capture student educational achievement and compare results of different schools in different districts. Parents and politicians are demanding more accountability by increasing the focus on a school’s academic record in addition to a student’s academic performance. These tests are now used to make policy decisions that extend beyond impacting only students; the standardized tests have become high-stakes tests for multiple stakeholders. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) is an example of a high-stakes test. The purpose of this paper is first to examine whether it is appropriate to use high-stakes test like the FCAT for high-stakes decisions and secondly are there better ways to assess students, teachers, and schools.

High-stakes tests, has been under attack on several different fronts and the issue has become political, the Republican Party strongly supports testing while the Democratic Party is more cautious or opposed to testing. Whoriskey examines some of the political implications of high-stakes testing in his article, “Political Backlash Builds Over High-Stakes Testing.” Specifically, Whoriskey looks at the situation in Florida where the state uses the FCAT not only to measure student achievement but also to determine whether or not a third-grade student can be promoted to the next grade level and to help determine the type of support (or punishment) that schools and teachers should receive.

Florida’s extensive use of the FCAT has met with severe criticism from the public. Results of public opinion polls are worth noting. According to Whoriskey:

A Zogby International poll for the Miami Herald last month showed that 61% of voters disagreed with grading and funding schools based on their test scores, and almost half said schools were allocating too much time for test preparation. A poll by the Florida Times-Union and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel showed similar results. (2006, ¶ 18)

There have been similar poll results all over the nation. The Texas State Teachers Association hired two polling firms, one from each major political party; the results indicated 56% of voters believed there was too much emphasis on standardized testing in schools. Likewise, the Teaching Commission, a pro-testing group, conducted a national poll that produced similar results; 52% of respondents thought that state tests do not accurately measure student achievement (Whoriskey, 2006, ¶ 19-20). If the tests do not reflect a student’s true ability, students should not be held accountable for the results.

One of the ways states hold students accountable is by requiring exit exams. As of 2003, 24 states required students to pass an exam in order to graduate from high school (Olson, 2003). The problem is that large numbers of students are not passing the high-stakes tests. In the State of Florida, more than 13,000 did not pass the FCAT. There is also data that indicates that although minority scores are improving, there is a growing divide in achievement between minority students and whites (Gough, 2001). This challenges the appropriateness of using high-stakes tests for deciding diplomas.

For high-stakes testing to work better, some changes are necessary. First, state legislators require all public schools and students to meet the same state educational standards. The problem is the legislators are not willing to provide equal funding, “states expect schools serving large proportions of low-income children to perform just as well as other schools on state tests without ensuring a level playing field,” (Gough, 2001). School boards and state legislatures need to implement a more equitable means of funding the public school system.

A second problem is there is no leeway or guidance for administering the tests to students with learning disabilities or limited English proficiency. As noted earlier, these tests often illustrate a disconcerting underperformance by students of color and from low-income families (Cruz, 2006; Shriberg & Shriberg, 2006; Vencat, 2006). Plans that would allow students that are not native English speakers to graduate with a particular grade point average instead of taking the test might address some of these concerns. There are also proposals that would allow alternative assessments, the use of progress-based assessments, and a gradual phase-in of the implementation of high-stakes testing over several years. Many students have not been adequately prepared for the tests so it would not be fair to penalize them. More time must be spent to ensure that the tests are well written and that there is a minimum of ambiguity. This would make it easier for teachers to design more comprehensive lessons that teach the skills necessary for improved performance on high-stakes test, and subsequently may provide a foundation from which alternative forms of assessment for teachers and school districts can be developed.

A third problem is how the tests are used for school funding. States attach financial incentives to the exams. Schools that can improve student performance are rewarded financially. Advocates argue that such incentives encourage schools to perform better. But what about schools that cannot improve performance or cannot improve their performance enough? In these cases, student underperformance will result in reduced funding. Reduced funding, in turn, can result in an inferior educational offering. Subsequent student underperformance completes the cycle. This may not be an issue if all schools started at a common base, but having all schools statewide or nation-wide use the same scale when some schools may already be under-performing would result in a downward spiral that would be difficult to escape. Expecting schools that have been neglected of adequate funding for many years, have abnormally large group of students with learning disabilities, or schools in districts where there may be a significant number of second language learners to suddenly be able to compete with rich suburban districts is unreasonable.

Therefore, where does this leave high-stake testing? Clearly, as mentioned earlier, testing is nothing new to the education field, yet there is so much opposition to something that should actually be an asset for parents and teachers. As advocates of high-stakes testing point out, the tests have been very successful in getting resources to children who needed them (Olson, 2003). School districts should not graduate students who are unable to read or perform basic math; however, districts cannot deny graduation to thousands of students. The legal and financial implications would be enormous, not to mention the political repercussions within the local communities.

Prior to high-stakes testing, teacher designed assessments were determined to be an appropriate measure of how well children were learning. This reflected the belief that children should not be judged by one test alone because learning is a developmental process that occurs naturally when there is context and purpose for the learner. Teachers had some flexibility with individual student grades. Grades were based on things like performance improvements or grading was spread over multiple criterion including attendance, participation, exams, and effort. This flexibility is absent when graduation is exclusively linked to performance on high-stakes tests.

The political backlash over high-stakes testing is a good thing, for it opens the arena for public debate and hopefully a stronger educational system. There needs to be broader support for high-stakes testing among the four stakeholders, students, parents, educators, and politicians. Once the support is achieved, the benefits of high-stakes testing will become more apparent and the goal of all stakeholders will become a reality, a stronger public education system for America’s children.


  • Cruz, B. C. (2006, May) High-stakes testing and Latino students. The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education. Paramus. 16(16).
  • Gough, P.B. (2001).Of standards, tests, and good sense. Phi Delta Kappan. 82(7).
  • Olson, L (2003). States debate exam policies for diplomas. Education Week. 22(36).
  • Olson, L. (2005). Selective discipline raising scores. Education Week. 24(30).
  • Shriberg, D. & Shriberg, A. B. (2006). High-stakes testing and dropout rates. Dissent. 53(4).
  • The 1926 scholastic aptitude test (the first SAT) (2006). Retrieved from
  • Vencat, E. F. (2006, Mar 27). Student cheating is reaching new levels, overhaul of standardized tests. Newsweek. (International ed.).
  • Whoriskey, P. (2006, October 23). Political backlash builds over high-stakes testing. Washington Post, p. A03.

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