Let's Talk about Testing

In this interactive lesson, students learn more about the high-stakes testing debate, explore different points of view about this issue, consider their own views, and identify actions they can take to address their concerns about high-stakes testing.


  • Students will explore their thoughts and feelings about high-stakes testing.
  • Students will learn more about the origins of high-stakes tests and how they differ from low-stakes or regular tests.
  • Students will explore different points of view about high-stakes testing and identify what position(s) most resonates with them.
  • Students will identify actions they can take to address their concerns about high-stakes testing. 

Concentric Circles: Thoughts and Feelings About Testing

Tell students they are going to do an activity which will help them explore their thoughts and feelings about high-stakes tests.  Assign half the students in the class the letter A and the other half the letter B.  Have the A students form a circle in the center of the room.  Have them turn outward.  Next, all the letter B students should face one of the A students in the circle so you have two concentric circles with students facing each other.
For each question below, students will have 2 minutes total (1 minute each) to respond to the questions.  After each question, B students will move to the right or left so that they are facing a new partner.  Use these questions and/or create questions of your own. 

  • What is your experience with "high-stakes" or standardized tests?
  • Have you ever talked with anyone about high-stakes testing?
  • How do you feel about high-stakes testing?
  • Do you think we should continue having high-stakes tests?  Why or why not?
  • What are some alternatives to high-stakes testing?


What is "high-stakes" testing?

Ask:  If something is high-stakes, what does that mean?  Does anyone know what high-stakes testing is?  What is the difference between high-stakes and low-stakes or regular testing?  Explain that in general, high-stakes tests have important consequences.  Ask for examples of tests that have consequences.
Explain that a high-stakes test is a test with serious consequences for the test taker, and others as well.  The outcome of a test can determine whether a student gets promoted to the next grade, graduates, gets admitted into certain middle and high schools, and colleges.  In recent years with new state and national education laws (e.g. No Child Left Behind), students' scores on standardized tests can also have consequences for individual teachers (their evaluation is partially based on their students' test scores) and for schools (for example, potentially closing schools with a certain percentage of failing students). 
Explain that the use and misuse of high-stakes tests are a controversial topic in public education especially because in recent years the tests have gotten more popular and have many more consequences. 

Ask: What do you think are some of the criticisms of high stakes tests?  Record students' responses on the board or chart paper.  Here are some possible responses:

  • The test does not correctly measure the student's knowledge or skills. 
  • Testing causes a great deal of stress and anxiety for some students. 
  • High-stakes tests are often given as a single long exam. 
  • High-stakes testing creates more incentive for cheating.
  • Tests can penalize test takers that do not have the necessary skills through no fault of their own. 
  • High-stakes tests force teachers to spend more time on test preparation (i.e. "teaching to the test") rather than teaching a wide range of knowledge and skills 

Ask: What do you think are the arguments in support of high stakes tests?  Again, record students' responses.  Possible responses include:

  • High-stakes tests hold teachers and schools accountable for educating students.
  • High-stakes tests help ensure that all teachers cover certain subjects and provide particular information students need to know. 
  • The tests are a way to measure all students using the same measurement. Without standard measures, we can't know how students, teachers or schools are really doing.
  • High stake tests help expose disparities and problems so that we can provide more support for schools and students who need it.

Tell the students that we will explore different points of view later in the lesson.

Seattle Teachers Boycott High-Stakes Standardized Test

Ask: Has anyone heard about a group of teachers in Seattle who recently decided to refuse  to give a standardized test.  To explore more, see our Teachable Moment lesson:  High Stakes Testing and the Seattle Teachers' Boycott
Explain to students that this is an example of a group of people (in this case, teachers) who felt strongly about this issue and took action to change it.
Give a brief summary:  In January 2013, teachers at Garfield High School in Seattle, WA,  voted overwhelmingly to refuse to administer a district-wide standardized test. A statement from Garfield teachers called the test a waste of time and money.  Students in Seattle Public Schools take the standardized Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test up to three times a year, from kindergarten through ninth grade or beyond. Along with many standardized tests required by the state, the school district requires the MAP test as a measure of students' progress in reading and math.  Garfield teachers have stated that they are not against tests and accountability, but they want a better measure of academic learning such as portfolio and performance-based assessment. 
Many national educational experts around the country have said this is the first time an entire school have refused to give a mandated test.  There has been a great deal of support for the Garfield teachers' boycott of the MAP test, including the National Education Association, whose President Dennis Van Roekel, made the following statement:

Today is a defining moment within the education profession as educators at Seattle's Garfield High School take a heroic stand against using the MAP test as a basis for measuring academic performance and teacher effectiveness. I, along with three million educators across the country, proudly support their efforts in saying 'no' to giving their students a flawed test that takes away from learning and is not aligned with the curriculum. Garfield High School educators are receiving support from the parents of Garfield students. They have joined an ever-growing chorus committed to one of our nation's most critical responsibilities—educating students in a manner that best serves the realization of their fullest potential.
Educators across the country know what's best for their students, and it's no different for our members in Seattle. We know that having well-designed assessment tools can help students evaluate their own strengths and needs, and help teachers improve. This type of assessment isn't done in one day or three times a year. It's done daily, and educators need the flexibility to collaborate with their colleagues and the time to evaluate on-going data to make informed decisions about what's best for students.

To learn more about the teachers' point of view, read teacher Jesse Hagopian's op-ed
In response to the action by Seattle teachers, Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of Washington, D.C., public schools, wrote:

Some local teachers union members have decided to reject Washington state's student assessment program, and that's unfortunate because every great teacher knows that student assessments can be a great tool. The Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) assessments used in Seattle and throughout the state aim to measure how students in kindergarten through ninth grade are doing. If tools like this are used correctly, they can help teachers adjust instruction, tweak lesson plans and tailor classroom time to meet the specific needs of individual children in the classroom.....
We know standardized testing works. For example, look at the District of Columbia, where I was school chancellor. By including students' test scores as a component of teacher evaluations, along with other reforms, such as rewarding teachers with performance-based pay increases, D.C. produced one of the best retention rates for great teachers in the country, 88 percent, while retaining only 45 percent of its low-performing teachers. That's a prime example of putting kids' educations first.
It is criminal that, in many communities throughout America, we send children every day into classrooms that are failing them. Astronomically high dropout rates and subpar math and reading-proficiency levels in lower-income, inner-city schools ought to jolt us as especially immoral. Every child deserves a quality education, regardless of his or her circumstances, and a path out of poverty .Instead of a national conversation over how best to serve our kids, Seattle boycotters are using a routine learning assessment to spark a debate over standardized tests and teacher evaluations. In doing so, the debate over the nuts and bolts of the MAP robs the public of a much more meaningful dialogue about how to ensure a high-quality education for every American student.



Stand Under:  Different Points of View on High-Stakes Testing

Explain that standardized, high-stakes tests have become a controversial issue.  There are many different opinions about whether these tests are positive or negative, and what the impact is on students, teachers, and schools. 
Read aloud the seven points of view below.  Have the statements and accompanying quotes written on paper hung around the classroom.   Students will walk around the room and find the quote that most resonates with them.  When all students have found their places, they will discuss with each other in the group their reasons for where they are standing.  They should spend 10 minutes brainstorming possible actions they can take to address the issues that are most important to them.  Have them come up with 3-5 ideas that they can share with the whole class.  If time permits, have students create a poster that expresses this point of view.
Another option: Ask students to write persuasive essays on their opinions on high-stakes testing , why, and what can be done about it. 

1.  Testing increases accountability of schools and teachers.
"Testing has been a valuable part of the educational process since the days of Socrates. There is nothing new or scary about it. It lets teachers and parents know how kids are doing and lets students see the rewards of hard work. That's why assessments are part of the No Child Left Behind Act. The law's emphasis on high standards and accountability has led to a sharp focus on results.

Students are no longer overlooked and shuffled from grade to grade, whether they have learned the material or not. The achievement gap between rich and poor and black and white is no longer treated as a sad fact of life, but rather as a problem to be solved."
Margaret Spellings, US Secretary of Education, 2005-2009, Atlanta Journal-Constitution op-ed, Oct. 14, 2005

2.    Standardized testing is not an accurate measure of student learning.
"Standardized testing was not intended to serve all its many misused purposes.  But even as a measure of an individual student it has enormous imitations. The score is "accurate" only within a very broad range: a so-called year on or off, and in 1/3 of the cases wider than that. That's its statistical range of reliability. However, since it only covers a certain percentage of the skills and aptitudes involved in reading or math it may not reflect how well the students have done on what they primarily DID study. Nor does it take into account that some work best under timed pressure, and some worse. This wouldn't show up on reliability studies. etc   In short it's even a lousy messenger regarding how one particular child is doing-and rarely useful diagnostically unless the teacher had the feedback-actually items answered wrong and right-immediately so he could match it with the kids, do some follow-up interviews, and try other ways of re-teaching it."

Debbie Meier, an educator and founder of successful small schools in NYC and Boston (http://dianeravitch.net/2013/03/04/deborah-meier-on-standardized-testing/)

3. Standardized tests provide more objective information than other measures, and we need that information.
"Standardized tests do not, and cannot, produce perfect measures, and no one claims that they can...The measures are used, despite their imperfections, because in most situations in science as well as in life some information for making decisions is better than none. Useful measures provide information whose benefits outweigh any cost and imprecision, and whose positive net benefits exceed those of any practical alternative....

Without high-stakes standardized testing, we would increase our reliance on teacher grading and testing. Are teacher evaluations free of standardized testing's alleged failings? No. Individual teachers can narrow the curriculum to that which they prefer. Grades are susceptible to inflation with ordinary teachers, as students get to know a teacher better and learn his idiosyncrasies. A teacher's (or school's) grades and test scores are far more likely to be idiosyncratic and non-generalizable than any standardized tests.'..."
Richard P. Phelps, PhD, testing scholar and economist, Standardized Testing Primer, 2007

4. Standardized tests force teachers to spend too much time preparing the students for the test which results in narrowing the curriculum.
"Educators do pay attention to what is on the tests—but the consequences are not necessarily the intended ones. Even the most carefully designed standards are only as effective as the tests that assess how well students have achieved them. And standardized tests can only assess a small portion of the curriculum. State accountability tests leave out some subjects altogether, and they only cover a limited sample of the many subtopics covered in others. In addition, for practical reasons, state tests tend to rely on easy-to-score questions that measure basic skills and recall instead of higher-order thinking. Worse yet, when stakes are high, it's more likely that what's missing from the tests will disappear from the curriculum, especially in schools with low-performing students.
The need to make test performance the first priority has forced many teachers to push topics and activities that do not appear on the test to the end of the school year, after testing is finished. Others try to compensate for lost curriculum areas by integrating subject matter from science and social studies into language arts and math, the most tested domains."

Jane L. David, director of the Bay Area Research Group (http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational_leadership/mar11/vol68/num06/High-Stakes_Testing_Narrows_the_Curriculum.aspx)

5.   Standardized tests help us identify inequities.
"First, we need standardized tests to provide basic information about how our schools are performing relative to each other. In the current environment of testing- and accountability-mania, it's easy to forget that this is actually very useful information for improvement purposes. The fact that we have used this information for other purposes, centering on punitive accountability measures, has taken our eyes off of this benefit to standardized testing. There are dozens of non-punitive ways to use this information, such as resource allocation, professional development planning, and identifying school goals for improvement. 

Second, we need standardized testing to identify inequities and achievement gaps. When we have no solid way to measure learning outcomes, it's easy for inequities to hide behind our good intentions and best efforts. But that's not good enough. We owe it to our students to pay attention to how they're doing, and to change what we're doing when it's not working."
Justin Baeder, a public school principal in Seattle (http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/on_performance/2011/07/why_we_still_need_standardized_testing_post-scandal.html
6. Using high-stakes testing to evaluate teachers impairs their ability to do their job well. 
"One thing of which we can be certain: Armed with knowledge of teacher value-added scores, it will be much harder for principals to observe and evaluate teachers objectively. In times past, when student test scores did not have high stakes for schools or teachers, principals with knowledge of test results could use this knowledge constructively to guide their observations; principals would visit classrooms where test scores were poor to see if they could determine something being done poorly, or visit classrooms where test scores were good to see if they could learn what was being done right. With high stakes now attached to the test, such constructive evaluation is less likely.
Richard Rothstein. a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/what-research-really-says-on-teacher-evaluation/2012/09/16/2e9de9fa-ff44-11e1-8adc-499661afe377_blog.html)
7.  High-stakes tests cause more incentives for cheating
(on the Atlanta cheating scandal)
"In many ways it's not surprising, because of the current emphasis on high-stakes accountability using standardized tests, and standardized tests almost exclusively. It almost encourages some people to do the wrong thing. So as you kick the stakes up, people are going to focus on the metrics that will be used to determine their fate. They'll be looking for ways to elevate those metrics, and some people will try to take a short route.
As long as you require accountability - and I don't think accountability is a bad thing, I think you have to have accountability - but as long as the accountability is going to be so heavily dominated by testing, and that coupled with targets and goals that in many cases are unrealistic, that encourages cheating. If teachers and administrators believe that the system has established standards that are just unattainable, and their futures are determined by those standards, it leads them to seek ways to beat the system. Cheating is one of those ways."
Robert Tobias, director of the Center for Research on Teaching and Learning at NYU's Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, and former head of assessment and accountability for the New York City schools (http://hechingerreport.org/content/high-stakes-tests-and-cheating-an-inevitable-combination_5942/)

Whole Class Presentation and Discussion

Have each small group present their point of view to the entire class.  They should present:

1) their point of view
2) why they hold that position
3) their action ideas
4) their poster
Process by asking: 

  • Was it easy or difficult to find a point of view with which you agree? 
  • What have you learned as a result of this activity? 
  • Did you change your point of view? 
  • What do you think about high-stakes testing?  
  • As students, do you think there is there anything you can do about it?