High-stakes testing: The top 10 realities

16 Mar

I have often voiced my never-ending concerns regarding high-stakes testing. In Australia we call our tests NAPLAN (National Assessment Program – Literacy And Numeracy). Countries throughout the world provide similar high-stakes tests with the shared vision that they will ‘raise our standards’. Sadly we are not seeing the standards raised at all, but instead classrooms that are raising learners for a world that no longer exists.

It is my strong belief that high-stakes testing doesn’t work in its current format and delivery. I fully understand and support the development of Literacy and Numeracy skills for our students, however, I do believe it needs to be in balance with a holistic approach to their learning with a variety of assessments and immediate data that gives them opportunities to improve and focus on their continued development.

Here are my top 10 reasons why I believe high-stakes testing isn’t working in education based mainly on the Australian NAPLAN experience although they are transferable across other education systems throughout the world in most if not all cases:

  1. Schools spend a vast amount of learning time teaching to the test. No matter how many leaders and politicians argue against this, many schools are teaching to the test. NAPLAN timetabling, teaching the genre that will appear on the test (e.g. persuasive writing), practice, practice, practice. How can students improve their standards when so much time is spent in limited areas of learning?
  2. High-stakes testing does not support teachers to improve student performance. Why? The tests students sit are held within the first semester. The results are shared five months later. How can teachers possibly support students to improve their learning when the test results are not instant?
  3. High-stakes testing does not provide an accurate record of student achievement. Through my leadership in schools, I have spent time  analysing teacher judgement results compared with high-stakes testing scores for hundreds of students in the same areas of assessment. I found that the school based results were not consistent with NAPLAN results. An interesting finding was that students that were sitting on the lower percentiles of high-stakes tests were achieving higher results within school based assessments. Students sitting on the higher percentiles of high-stakes tests, had lower results in their school based assessments.  Students in the middle range of high-stakes testing varied considerably in their school based results. I also often question the many emotional, social, physical and cultural pressures and challenges students face before, during and after completing high-stakes testing.  These cannot be ignored. How can students perform at their best feeling the pressure of these tests? Alternatively, how many students don’t want to perform and just hand in a test that doesn’t reflect their actual results? How many students fail these tests because they are vastly different to the way they naturally learn? How many students are sitting tests they are not ready for? How can timed tests reveal a student’s best, when some students take longer to show their competencies? Some even show better results at different times of the day.
  4. High-stakes testing only tests limited skills. How can we derive an accurate assessment of student holistic learning needs if we are only assessing students’ spelling, reading comprehension and mathematical understandings? If we were to look at comprehension alone, we will find that we can no longer rely only on reading comprehension in a 21st century classroom. What about oral and visual comprehension? Think of how many times you use these forms of comprehension in your everyday life now. Where are these within the test? Where are the other skills that require analysis, synthesis, critical thinking, creativity, innovation and collaboration? They are all essential components of learning today, and all non-existent in a high-stakes testing regime that focuses more on knowledge than its application.
  5. High-stakes testing has the potential to diminish student confidence and motivation to learn. When we focus on high-stakes tests as being an important part of learning and success, this places greater pressure on students to perform well. This is further amplified by parents who seek high results and fall into the comparison trap, looking at other students’ results and where their child is placed according to norms. The further down the scale they are, the more chance their child will feel inadequate and unsuccessful. Sadly not all students will sit at the top scale, so the chances of having many students feeling they have failed is heightened.  If a child has a history of failure under such testing conditions, knowing they will be facing them again does nothing for their self-esteem, willingness to learn and motivation. Yes, the likelihood of students feeling motivated and confident is strong for students at the top end of the high-stakes testing scale, but unfortunately this is not the majority of our students. We are also seeing students that are becoming more anxious about standardised tests, including students that are working above standard.
  6. High-stakes testing stifles creativity and students’ ability to be innovative problem solvers. High-stakes testing is developed externally for a limited section of the curriculum with an emphasis on correct answers. Students will not have opportunities to explore real world problems, direct their learning, or create new solutions that enhance their motivation across the curriculum through this testing regime. Instead the restrictions these tests place on their learning stifles their natural curiosity to learn and discover. Teachers also feel the pressure for their students to perform well especially if they are in schools that use the results to assess their teaching competency. Feeling such pressure will affect their teaching no matter how effective they are. There are always students who for some reason or another are falling behind. Teachers will most likely focus more on the structure of the test and its demands for accuracy to shape student thinking, knowledge and skills in limiting ways.
  7. High-stakes testing is not an effective way to support students in the real world. Some may argue that we live in a world that is competitive, hierarchical and challenging, therefore participating in high-stakes testing provides students with the experiences that the realities of their world brings. I totally disagree that this is an effective way to support students to cope with life’s demands. Life is not about the destination but the journey. Students need to experience learning opportunities where they can value their development in their way and in their time. We don’t want to produce a world where students live in a labelled box according to their IQ. When we also consider what employers look for in the workforce, we are finding that they actually look beyond literacy and numeracy. They look for skills that high-stakes tests don’t cover such as the ability to work in a team environment, being self-motivated, being innovative, showing initiative and solving problems. Literacy and numeracy are important, however, with the advent of technology and the ability to be resourceful in using it to support literacy and numeracy gaps, I can say with confidence, that we live in a world where so much more is needed from our young people that these tests just don’t provide.
  8. High-stakes testing is a political need, not an educational one. Looking at the history of high-stakes tests it is abundantly clear that they have been initiated and delivered by government departments primarily to seek ways to measure and intervene in education to ensure their nation is educationally competitive in the world and/or in comparison to other states and territories within the country itself. This is also supported by the need to publicly display results online. What benefit does it bring to schools when their results are shared and compared with other schools especially those with different needs and communities? The benefits are there for schools with high results, but for most, this isn’t the case. If the tests are done to benefit students, there should be no need to advertise these collective results. In their endeavour to provide these tests, they actually forget that educators are best placed to teach students and can deliver quality outcomes without the need for external scrutinization and direction. Words are not enough. The actions of governments speak for themselves. We must find a way to give educators and schools permission to teach their cohort of students in the best way they believe will work for them holistically, developmentally and intrinsically. It is understood that we need to measure student development, however this should not be for political gain or for political reasons. If we were to completely abolish high-stakes tests, would education still continue to thrive? I have no hesitation in saying not only will it thrive, it will give students greater opportunities to learn and succeed, especially if the focus is an enriching, creative and student-directed curriculum.
  9. High-stakes testing promotes competition and externalisation.  The externalisation of our world has brought with it anxiety, depression, unhappiness and other painful experiences that we have allowed to diminish our quality of life and self-worth. Competition does exist, but must we also have it within our education system where there is such a huge need for our students to value themselves, their individuality, and their learning in intrinsic ways? Students are placed in situations where they are comparing themselves to others and feeling the pressure to compete and ‘be better than everyone else’. High-stakes tests give the message that success is external. Your score against the scores of others is what counts. The visual representation of your result speaks this message loud and clear. When we consider the development of growth mindsets and its value in learning improvement, focusing on the end result breeds a fixed mindset culture which results in underperformance.
  10. High-stakes testing crowds the curriculum and restricts other learning opportunities. If our teachers are focusing a huge chunk of time on an already crowded curriculum to teach to the test, what are they not covering that students need? For example, spending weeks on the ‘persuasive’ genre (as this was on the NAPLAN test) meant that other genres were not addressed. Also, what happens to students that already have a high level of proficiency with this genre? Are they regurgitating the same information over and over again when they could be involved in other learning opportunities they need? What about the importance of the arts and physical education? The research into these areas of the curriculum speaks volumes around developing creativity, healthy lifestyles, resilient minds, as well as mental and physical wellness. All of these impact on student learning performance.  When we have a government that focuses on limited areas of the curriculum, decisions are made to limit other important areas of learning and wellbeing that are essential for children’s’ development.

If NAPLAN and other standardised testing continues, here are some considerations for improvement:

  • Testing must be for the absolute benefit of the student first and foremost including their wellbeing;
  • Testing should not be compulsory for all students. Parents, teachers and school leaders work together to determine the child’s readiness. This should mean that students can sit tests when they are developmentally ready rather than at a set time. With the transition to online testing, this should allow more flexibility for schools and parents to make this decision;
  • Online access to the standardised tests and their results must transit with the student from one school to another. This will enable schools to recognise growth over time, understand their past results and to continually support their needs;
  • Schools and teachers must receive results within one month to positively act on student learning needs;
  • Published results should focus on collective data that emphasises growth instead of final results. There should be no public naming or comparisons of individual schools. Schools must have the autonomy to decide whether they would like to publish their growth data as a school on their own website and media communication;
  • Parents should receive a report of their child’s growth and resources for them to support their continued growth with no comparisons against other students or averages to respect their own individual needs;
  • All decisions on standardised tests as a nation (in fact on education itself), must be made by a board of educators based on research and educational experience. Politicians must listen and act on their advice;
  • Tests must cover a range of holistic skills needed for the future.


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