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High Stakes or No Stakes, Testing Still Has Consequences

By guestblogger Alexandra Usher

The opinions expressed below are solely those of the author, and not endorsed or supported by the Center on Education Policy.

High stakes or no stakes, testing still has consequences

Secretary Duncan has made it clear that he's in favor of standardized testing, value-added assessments, encouraging states and districts to build data systems, linking teacher pay to student test scores, and generally gathering a lot of data about students and using it for high stakes purposes. Recently, President Obama was criticized for appearing to counter that sentiment by suggesting that too much testing is bad for schools. Actually, what some interpreted him as saying was that too much testing tied to high stakes can be harmful, while through-course assessments used to generate feedback on how students are doing are useful. But whether or not we tie assessments to high stakes, there is another issue to consider here.

I spent a year teaching English to high school students in Germany. These weren't regular high schools students—they were students who had, years earlier, been placed into one of the two lower educational tracks and graduated school by the age of 16 without the certification necessary to attend a university. They had come to my school to make up for those last two years and prepare for a rigorous exit exam that would determine whether or not they were eligible to apply to college. The amount of through-course assessments these students were given seemed endless; constant checks to determine whether or not they were keeping up with the curriculum. These weren't high-stakes tests, although some factored into the students' grades. Nevertheless, no student wanted to be tested on material they felt unsure of. And no teacher wanted to administer a test before they felt they had been able to adequately prepare their students. This meant that the class moved along at a rapid pace. Curriculum units were divided up into textbook pages that had to be covered before the next through-course assessment was due to be given. The students wanted to get as much practice as possible before taking the assessments. There was no time to get sidetracked or off-task.

I had been sent to Germany, not to teach my own English class, but to act as a sort of cultural ambassador for the U.S. By high school, most German students have at least a conversational mastery of English. I was there to augment their English class with native-speaker vocabulary, indulge their curiosities about life in America and generally broaden their intellectual curiosity. I was surprised to learn there was no time for that. Of the 15 English teachers at my school, only three managed to make time in their rapid-fire delivery of curriculum for me to make a guest appearance in their class with any frequency. What a shame, as these students who had never excelled in a rigorous classroom setting became much more engaged when we departed from the textbook and simply talked about what interested them.

I'm not arguing that testing, high-stakes or no stakes, is bad. It can be a valuable tool for teachers, students and parents to know how a student is progressing. But if you have a certain number of through-courses assessments each covering a certain amount of material, and a fixed amount of days in the school year, time to veer off the beaten path starts to disappear. In my opinion, we should think carefully about all the pros and cons before requiring more tests of students and teachers.

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