Essay: High Stakes Tests

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High Stakes Testing in Education: Problems

Across the world, students from the primary grades to post-graduate school have been taking standardized tests in order to qualify for the next level of education or to earn their degrees. In these programs, designers believe high stakes tests will separate those who deserve to move on with those who do not have enough knowledge to do so. Furthermore, many believe these tests are an excellent way of assessing where students knowledge and abilities are. In other words, they help teachers and administrators determine which subjects still need attention and which students seem to be grasping. But these tests also attract a great deal of condemnation from those who suggest they do not accurately reveal which students are advancing. In fact, some suggest that they are not only poor reflections of what students are learning, but they are also racist, promote the wrong students, and even dumb down the curriculum. While some educators would agree that standardized tests are not the optimum assessment tool, they would ask whether or not there is a better option. However, because standardized tests do not encourage students to apply critical thinking, do not necessarily promote the best students, and because there are better assessments available, standardized tests should not be used to determine high stakes, though there is a place for them as surveys for data collection.

Jeff Lantos (2006), an elementary school teacher and Los Angeles Times opinion column writer, calls critical thinking "making connections," arguing that the best teachers are those who encourage their students to make connections among the different facts that they are exposed to each day. According to Lantos (2006), "Endless test preparation…shrinks the context. It reduces inquiry. It mitigates against Socratic dialogue can drain much of the passion from teaching and learning" (Lantos, 2006, para. 3). What Lantos (2006) argues is that, in the real world and in the college environment, students have to learn how to think critically in order to get ahead. They must make connections when deciding how to solve problems and make good decisions. For instance, a person attempting to design a marketing campaign to get the greatest number of new clients for his or her corporation needs to know more than the characteristics of the potential clients' businesses, their needs, and what appeals to them aesthetically. Instead, they need to know how to connect these facts in order to create an innovative advertisement that makes a difference. According to Lantos (2006), high-stakes testing does not encourage the development of this kind of knowledge. Lantos (2006) argues that programs that include standardized tests as assessment are focused on teaching test-preparation, a method of teaching that does not encourage critical thinking, but instead just the collection of knowledge. Standardized tests that contain high stakes reinforce this problem. Not only are student gauged by many high stakes tests, but teachers, administrators, schools, and even whole school systems are often graded using these tests. For this reason, teachers have a vested interest in students' successful completion of these tests, giving them incentives to teach to the test rather than to teach the critical thinking skills that the students will need as they continue their education.

Despite these arguments, Goodman and Hambleton (2005), argue on the side of standardized testing, suggesting that the people who form such tests engage in a great deal of preparation that allows them to write a test consisting of material that is most relevant to the grade level being assessed. The authors argue that the development of content standards, and the alignment of content standards with the material on standardized tests has served to create tests that are in tune with what students are expected to know at a certain grade level (Goodman and Hambleton, 2005). Furthermore, the fact that such tests are developed through the collection of material that should be taught over a wide range of time and subjects and because the tests are unique for different time periods and settings, Goodman and Hambleton (2005) argue that this discourages the teaching of the test. Even though these arguments stand out as ways in which standardized tests have been made better, it does not mean that they are the best assessments upon which to decide academic goals. Regardless of whether or not that material covered in the exam is complex, it is generally difficult to assess critical thinking on one mostly multiple-choice test. As Lantos (2006) comments, "test scores…are like the closing prices on the stock exchange. They fluctuate for any number of reasons," including failing to eat a complete breakfast, nervousness, or reading the test incorrectly (para. 3). Furthermore, having unique questions might stop teachers from teaching to the exact test, but it won't stop them from adopting a teaching style that praises the collection of knowledge rather than critical thinking and the asking of questions. Thus, standardized tests cannot be used to evaluate students in regards to the stakes of academia -- of moving forward or getting a degree -- because they do not measure the skill of critical thinking, which is one ultimate goal of education.

In addition to failing to promote critical thinking, high-stakes test often fail to promote the students who are capable of such a promotion. Because, as Lantos (2006) notes, standardized test results can be influenced by everything from a misreading to a bad breakfast, a nervous stomach, or a bad day, basing students' futures on such an exam is a risky decision. Often, the stakes that are placed on such tests are so high that students are so nervous taking them that they do not do as well as they could, generally, have done. Another popular reason for students' performing poorly on standardized tests includes racial, ethnic, and cultural stigma. In her article in the Journal of Negro Education, Fleming (2000) argues that testing has a long history of racial bias. The author writes that tests to determine the intellectual abilities of a person were, at first, designed in order to designate blacks among the least capable. Furthermore, she argues that today's SAT scores do not do what they are intended to do -- predict whether or not a student will do well in college. If a student taking the SATs is black, Fleming (2000) reported that his or her success is also partly due to the racial composition of a campus and how well the student is received there. Further, Fleming (2000) notes that the SAT tends to "denigrate black experience and demonstrate a bias toward science" (pg. 1). Others have similarly argued that the SAT is geared toward the predominate white, middle class, American students, and that students from different cultures or backgrounds tend to do poorly because they have difficulty understanding the cultural components of the test, how questions are asked, etc.

Geisinger (2005), however, offers an argument against the assumption that tests are biased toward some minority groups. He states that if certain questions or types of questions can be identified as biased, then they can be removed before the test is given, eliminating the problem with bias in standardized testing. Indeed, what Geisinger (2005) proposes actually occurs in many high-stakes testing situations. Developers of high stakes tests, such as K-12 testing in the states that determine whether students will graduate or proceed to the next grade level, do check these tests for bias before they are given, revising questions as needed. However, what Geisinger (2005) proposes is not enough, as it is not simple questions being biased, but of the culture of the test being biased as a whole. Thus, if intelligent students are unable to pursue their college or career choice because of an SAT, it becomes crucial to argue that standardized tests with such stakes should be removed from the nation's educational system. Because of the SAT, not all people are being promoted fairly. Those who just happen to have a "miss day" on the test have difficulty understanding why it should be the focus of their future. Thus, with high-stakes tests susceptible to so many factors, it is clear that they don't necessarily promote those who have earned the promotion given. Some who are quite capable of being promoted to the next grade level or receiving a diploma do not get those promotions because of problems with high-stakes test.

Finally, not only do standardized tests fail to promote critical thinking and to promote those who are capable of receiving such a promotion, but they are also not the only assessment models that can be used to confer these stakes. Many teachers and administrators have come to believe the high stakes testing is a poor assessment model. Because of this, in the college environment, many professors assess their students' abilities and knowledge with essay exams, papers, and final projects where they are asked to actually put into practice what they have learned. In this way, the professor and student, in a sense, work together to conduct the examination. The professor has… [END OF PREVIEW]

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