• by Amanda Walker Johnson, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • June – July 2005
This past spring, several protests led by students against high-stakes testing erupted across Texas. In Tarrant County, more than 60 high school students planned to wear T-shirts during Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) testing, bearing slogans such as “Walking standardized test score,” “I am not in the equation of my education,” and “Total Annihilation of Knowledge and Skills” (Melhart, 2005).
In the same month, an 11-year-old student from Edinburg, Texas, refused to take the TAKS, receiving national attention when his story was reported by the New York Times. According to the fifth-grade student, “I’m doing this for all kids, so kids will be happy when they go to school, so kids will want to go to school” (Walson, 2005).
Likewise, a 10th-grade girl from San Antonio refused to take the TAKS this spring. For her: “These tests don’t measure what kids really need to know, they measure what’s easy to measure. We should be learning concepts and skills, not just memorizing. It’s sad for kids and it’s sad for teachers, too” (LaCoste-Caputo, 2005).
As these students risk their academic futures to take a stand, their protests call our attention to the human context of high-stakes testing: that lost in the discourse of rising test scores are the psychological, educational and ethical costs of high-stakes testing.
One of the most pervasive issues around high-stakes testing is the psychological toll that such an environment is having on students. According to Townsend, high-stakes testing negatively affects students’ social identities and self-concepts (Townsend, 2002).
For example, when a Latina high school student failed the TAAS (the pre-courser of the TAKS) for a second time, she did not return to her sessions with her tutor. She had begun calling herself a failure and had given up her hopes of graduating.
Parents and teachers tell of children as young as age nine experiencing chest pains, ulcers and throwing up on their tests from the anxiety, pressure and fear of failing. While allowing students to re-take the test, in theory, would absorb some of this pressure, it can also lead to labeling and disengagement with school. As the T-shirts of the protesting students attest, high-stakes testing is de-personalizing education for many students, leaving them feeling objectified.
In addition, several studies have renewed questions about the impact of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning. Research suggests that high-stakes testing leads to constant test preparation or “teaching to the test” that severely narrows the curriculum and “de-skills” teachers (McNeil and Valenzuela, 2001).
In theory, the alignment of state curriculum with the tests would ensure that teaching to the test is teaching the curriculum. However, teaching to the test tends to inflate scores at the cost of in-depth classroom instruction. It is exactly the memorization exercises, test preparation and worksheets to which students have objected most in their protests against high-stakes testing.
Further, as promotion and graduation decisions are being solely determined by test performance, the broad range of students’ competence is increasingly ignored. High test scores can hide students’ weaknesses in non-tested subjects and competency areas necessary for future career and college success, such as skills in presentation, research and the critical interpretation and analysis of texts (Volanté, 2004). In fact, no steps were taken to establish the predictive validity – that is, a measure of whether test performance could predict future performance – of the TAAS or the TAKS before the graduation and promotion requirements were imposed.
Finally, teaching to the test adversely affects teachers’ morale, particularly the framing of curriculum as “teacher-proof.” Ironically, in a state where teachers’ competency is constantly questioned, Texas does not require test writers or scorers to have training in education.
Along with the educational costs, high-stakes testing carries an ethical cost, impeding authentic accountability, equity and justice. An exposé in the Dallas Morning News accusing 400 schools of cheating on TAKS scores led the Texas Education Agency to firmly state that any teachers caught cheating would lose their jobs and teaching certifications.
According to the TEA commissioner, “Typically when cheating allegations are confirmed, the problems have occurred in one or two schools and are not systematic.”
It is easy to individualize a systemic problem by blaming teachers. But, a study published recently by Nichols and Berliner (2005) suggests that it is the high-stakes environment that has led to the distortion and corruption of both the educational process and the very indicators of accountability – not only through cheating, but also “gaming the system” by encouraging students to drop out and, subsequently, misrepresenting dropout rates, teaching to the test and manipulating test cut-off scores and pass/fail rates (Nichols and Berliner, 2005).
Controversies over improper accountability data reporting are not new to Texas. Just three years after the implementation of the accountability system in 1993, TEA established the Special Data Inquiry Unit to investigate claims of data manipulation. In 1999, a major urban school district was indicted for data tampering after the district replaced the names of a group of Latino students with numbers so that their tests would not be counted. The scandal as well as others across the state prompted the Texas state comptroller to form a Public Education Integrity Taskforce.
A teacher roundtable discussion through the integrity taskforce revealed that the pressure of testing from both within and outside the district led to cases in which teachers cheated through prompting students, changing answers and invalidating tests, and in which administrators “ARDed out” students – that is, exempted students through special education – or suspended or expelled students before the test.
One teacher suggested that exemptions were racially based. Another teacher even suggested, “Some districts swap students for testing” (Public Education Integrity Taskforce, 2001).
In the distortion and corruption that Berliner and Nichols describe as stemming from high-stakes testing, equity is left behind. As IDRA’s executive director, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, has argued about high-stakes testing, “Because they are more likely to attend schools with inadequate resources, minority and low-income students have borne the brunt of the consequences of high-stakes testing” (Robledo Montecel, 2000).
In the GI Forum, et al. vs. Texas Education Agency case, decided in 1999, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund provided evidence that the TAAS had a disparate impact on students of color; the test construction process lacked the psychometric properties to rid the test of racial bias; and since the introduction of TAAS, minority students disproportionately had either been retained in the ninth grade or dropped-out.
However, Judge Prado, presiding over the case, ruled that the adverse impact was not caused by the actions of the state, but was probably due to the failure of minority students themselves to close the gap. The Judge also ruled that there was no proof of a causal relationship between the TAAS and dropout rates.
In 2003, data manipulation scandals in a large urban school district (that had just won a prize for high TAKS passing rates) uncovered and brought national attention to the phenomenon of “pushing-out,” or encouraging students to drop out in order to raise test scores.
Allowing high-stakes test scores to become the single indicators of both individual student success or failure and teacher, school and district accountability oversimplifies the broad and very complex context of education. Further, it silences the historical conditions characteristic of so many schools with populations of predominantly students of color, such as persistent lack of resources, high teacher turnover and administrative instability. These conditions are only exacerbated by the sanctions-rewards system of high-stakes testing that threatens schools with closures, reconstitution and private corporate management for failure and at the same time provides incentives and exemptions from civil rights provisions for higher scores without regard for the human cost of harmful practices that may produce those higher scores.
Raising the stakes of testing not only puts accountability and equity at risk, but also it jeopardizes both the public and the education of public education. Despite the fact that the accountability system was supposedly the “tradeoff” for finance equity among districts (Achieve, Inc., 2002), high-stakes testing is continually being expanded as finance equity provisions are placed in jeopardy.
The push for more testing is being made without regard for persistent inequalities in Texas, the educational costs of testing, or the effects of high-stakes on the mental and physical well-being of students. Consequently, the conditions are being set for testing corporations, test-prep companies and private school management companies to capitalize on the fears and anxieties brought about by high-stakes testing.
Recently, a Princeton Review executive told The Washington Post, “The fear and anxiety associated with changes in the SAT are good for our business” (Dobbs, 2005).
Already, TEA contracts with one testing corporation for more than $57 million, and students may be forced to pass even more tests just to receive credit for completing many of their courses required for graduation.
As one high school teacher asked of the high-stakes testing system: “Who really benefits? It surely isn’t the children.”
Achieve, Inc. Aiming Higher: Meeting the Challenges of Education Reform in Texas (Washington, D.C.: Achieve, Inc., 2002).
Dobbs, M. “New SAT a Boon for Test-Prep Business: Expensive Coaching Debated as Students Prepare for Revised Exam,” Washington Post (Monday, March 7, 2005).
LaCoste-Caputo, J. “They’re Not Going to Take it: Student Rebels Boycott High-Stakes Tests,” San Antonio Express-News (February 19, 2005).
McNeil, L., and A. Valenzuela. “The Harmful Impact of the TAAS System of Testing in Texas: Beneath the Accountability Rhetoric” In Orfield and Kornhaber, eds. Raising Standards or Raising Barriers? Inequality and High-Stakes Testing in Public Education (New York, N.Y.: Century Foundation Press, 2001).
Melhart, K. “Students Stage T-Shirt TAKS Protest,” Ft. Worth Star-Telegram (February 22, 2005).
Nichols, S., and D.C. Berliner. The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators through High-Stakes Testing (Tempe, Ariz.: Education Policy Studies Laboratory, Arizona State University, 2005).
Public Education Integrity Taskforce. A Report to Comptroller Carole Keeton Rylander (Austin, Texas: Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, 2001).
Robledo Montecel, M. “TAAS Ruling Troubling,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, February 2000).
Townsend, B.L. “Testing While Black,” Remedial and Special Education (Vol. 23 Issue 4: 222-230, 2002).
Volanté, L. “Teaching To the Test: What Every Educator and Policy-Maker Should Know,” Canadian Journal of Educational Administration and Policy (Issue #35, September 25, 2004).
Walson, K. “11-year-old Boy Protests TAKS, Refuses to Take this Year’s Exams, Fifth-grader Says Too Much Emphasis is Placed on Tests,” The Monitor (February 25, 2005).
Amanda Walker Johnson, Ph.D., is a research assistant in the IDRA Division of Evaluation Research. Comments and questions may be directed to IDRA via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
[©2005, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the June- July 2005 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]