IDRA Newsletter • August 2002 • 

Tests are called “high-stakes” when they are used to make major decisions about a student, such as high school graduation or grade promotion. To be high stakes, a test has to be very important in the decision process or be able to override other information (for example, a student does not graduate if he or she does not pass the test regardless of how well he or she did in school). Research has shown that high-stakes testing causes damage to individual students and education. It is not a reasonable method for improving schools. Here are a few of the many reasons:

High-stakes tests are unfair to many students

Some students simply do not test well. Many students are affected by test anxiety or do not show their learning well on a standardized test, resulting in inaccurately lower scores.

Many students do not have a fair opportunity to learn the material on the test because they attend poorly-funded schools with large class sizes, too many teachers without subject area certification, and inadequate books, libraries, laboratories, computers and other facilities. High-stakes tests punish them for things they cannot control. If students do not have access to an adequate and equitable education, they end up being held accountable while the system is not.

High-stakes testing leads to increased grade retention and dropping out

Grade retention has repeatedly been proven to be counterproductive: students who are retained do not improve academically, are emotionally hurt by retention, suffer a loss of interest in school and self-esteem, and are more likely to drop out of school.

High-stakes testing produces teaching to the test

The higher the stakes, the more schools focus instruction on the tests. As a result, what is not tested often is not taught. Science, social studies, art or physical education may be eliminated if only language arts and math are tested. Important topics and skills that cannot be tested with paper-and-pencil tests – such as writing research papers or conducting laboratory experiments – are not taught.

Narrowing of curriculum and instruction happens most to low-income and minority students. Too often, poor kids in under-funded schools get little more than test coaching that does not adequately prepare them for further learning. In some schools, the library budget is spent on test prep materials, and professional development is reduced to training teachers to be better test coaches. All this further limits educational opportunities for low-income children.

High-stakes testing drives out good teachers

As learning largely depends on teacher quality, real improvements in schools can only come through teachers. Good teachers are often discouraged, even disgusted, by the overemphasis on testing. Many excellent teachers leave.

High-stakes testing misinforms the public

People have a right to know how well schools are doing. However, tests fail to provide sufficient information. Teaching to the test causes score inflation (score gains that do not represent actual improvements in learning), which misleads the public into thinking schools are improving, when they may not be better – and due to teaching to the test, may even be worse.

Tests are a narrow slice of what parents and the public need to know about schools. They do not include non-academic areas and they are weak measures of academics.
Test results do not take into account non-school factors that affect learning, such as school resources and teacher certification – all of which must be addressed if “no children are to be left behind.”

Conclusion: High-stakes testing does not improve education

Test standards and major research groups such as the National Academy of Sciences clearly state that major educational decisions should not be based solely on a test score. High-stakes testing punishes students, and often teachers, for things they cannot control. It drives students and teachers away from learning, and at times from school. It narrows, distorts, weakens and impoverishes the curriculum while fostering forms of instruction that fail to engage students or support high-quality learning. In a high-stakes testing environment, the limit to educational improvement is largely dictated by the tests – but the tests are a poor measure of high-quality curriculum and learning. In particular, the emphasis on testing hurts low-income students and students from minority groups. Testing cannot provide adequate information about school quality or progress. High-stakes testing actively hurts, rather than helps, genuine educational improvement.

Excerpted with permission from “The Dangerous Consequences of High-Stakes Standardized Testing,” by FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (617-864-4810;

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[©2002, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the August 2002 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.]