High Stakes Testing Policy in the U.S Education System

Evaluation of High Stakes Testing Policy

The current education system in the U.S requires students from third to eight grades to pass at least one standardized test per year. These standardized tests are referred to as End of Grade exams. The results of these tests have a diverse impact on learners, schools, teachers and school districts. Prior to entering high school, students are expected to pass a number of exams. The scores received are also used to rank the specific schools. Schools that perform well are given various incentives including monetary rewards. On the other hand, schools where students get consistently low grades face a number of repercussions from both the state and national government. These repercussions include being forced to offer tutorship, complete restructuring or transportation to other schools (Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas). These and other consequences typify the high stakes testing policy.

This paper will address the general impact of these education systems. It is organized as follows; the first part is introduction, followed by a discussion on why this policy was initiated. The third part discusses how this system operates in the education environment while the fourth section presents a critique of this system.

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High stakes testing is also referred to, since the outcomes of such tests influence a person’s life. The outcome of these tests determines whether one will receive a high school certificate, grading of a particular school, withholding of funding or whether students with low grades will have to repeat class. Results from high stakes tests are regularly published and broadcast by local media, receiving a range of reactions from various stakeholders.

Politicians only acting on emotion and having inefficient and congruent information have de-humanized the school system by implementing an education system that is authoritarian in nature. The U.S department of education is responsible for implementing the high stakes tests and NCLB act and data from such tests are used to decide the future of learners, teachers and districts. In essence, the high stakes policy has led to the de-habilitation of both the psychological and physical health of learners, teachers and administrators. The present education system in the country needs to be checked and revised to discourage rot learning where students only “learn for the test”.

Why the High Stakes Testing Policy Was Implemented

The high stakes testing policy was originated in 1980 when a commission created by the Reagan Administration issued a report on the country’s education systems. The commission recommended the introduction of such a system to improve the quality of education in the country. According to the report, many public schools across the Unites States failed since they did not have a rigorous testing standard. Moreover, the report also included the criteria of promoting learners using social standards. A campaign was initiated by the Business Roundtable BRT to return the extant curriculum to the basics including the phonics. This required schools not only to meet high standards but also to be held accountable for what they do. The reforms were to be under the stewardship of experts being part of the business world and having a good understanding of the economy (McCabe, 1999).

The first state to inaugurate the high stakes testing in America was Lousiana, which consequently appointed the School Accountability Advisory Committee. However, this led to harsh consequences. The targets for testing were the fourth and eighth graders and students who did not pass these exams were forced to repeat classes. Schools that did not meet the expectations were sanctioned with drastic measures. Few years later, over ten states were promoting students to the next grade based on standardized test scores. By 2008, 25 states required learners to pass a statewide test in graduating. Additionally, schools that were low performing faced various sanctions and penalties (Johnson & Johnson).

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How the High Stakes Testing is Used

Through standardized testing systems, educators are required to maintain and improve test scores for students and their respective schools. Most teachers employ a curriculum and teaching activities that are skills and test oriented. Moreover, classes are elongated in order to ensure that teachers cover enough material before the exam period. Classes and lessons are tailored towards test and skills oriented programs such as vocabulary worksheets. Other teaching methods that are commonly used by teachers include focusing on multiple questions, which are preferred to other teaching methods. Regular teaching methods such as creative projects and open responses are commonly ignored. These and many other strategies are driven by the need of these schools to improve their rankings. This is an illustration of how high stakes policy influenced the system of education (Edwards).

Some schools have implemented the MAP, Measure of Academic Progress, which is an evaluation program, offered by outside entity. MAP increased its market when its endeavors positively raised the scores of other schools. MAP provides mock like examinations halfway through the school year. The guidelines and test results of MAP are consequently used by educators to adapt their curriculum to meeting the needs of students. When the date of testing comes near, teachers do not teach new materials, and instead focus on preparing for the new tests. This method has been termed as effective in improving students’ test scores. Further, the performance of students is indicated in data and graphs, which are then used to tailor the system according to the required needs. The emphasis on quantitative development and data has changed the way classes in many states are taught. Educators focus on using a standardized curriculum rather than adapting the teaching and learning to meet the current needs of students. In other words, the high stakes testing system has completely altered the teaching methods (Edwards).

A Critical Analysis of the High Stakes Testing Policy


Most proponents of this testing system argue that this system has been effective in motivating both teachers and learners to work hard. In particular, standardization of tests in the country’s education system will make all students, teachers and schools follow high learning and teaching standards. This system also creates awareness that the proficient of students in mathematics and literacy determines the success of these students both in the school and within the employment sector (Murnane & Levy, 1996).

There are also other critics who state that policies, which are aimed at improving learning and teaching, have a potential of benefitting minority students, language students and those with disabilities more than other learners. Further, this system is oriented towards ending low track classes where minority students such as Africans, Latinos and those whose native language is other than English receive poor education. This reasoning is based on the fact that placing students in low track classes is harmful to students in terms of education quality. Additionally, learners will earn more if they are placed in classes that are more demanding.

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Failures of These Programs

Various studies have documented that the use of high stakes testing in the current system of education has had an adverse negative influence on learners. It has also been accompanied by a wide gap in income, ethnic or racial groups. This has instigated cheating among these learners and teachers as a way of meeting the learning goals. According to CReATE (2012), the implication of high stakes testing does not only affect students, but educators and parents as well. Researchers have challenged the reliability, validity, efficiency and ethics involved in using high stakes testing score as a means of assessing the educators. Chicagoland Researchers and Advocates for Transformative Education (CReATE) argue that “there is no sufficient evidence systems of assessments that incorporate the learner’s test results as being beneficial to student achievement”. Further, this aspect will incentivize teachers to use any means for achieving high-score tests. The teachers will also try to avoid students with disabilities, those with health or psychological issues because they presume that these categories of learners will waste a lot of their time. According to research findings, growth measures for learners are not ideal in identifying proper consistency and accuracy over on the effectiveness of a teacher.

A study by McCabe, for instance, found out that the rate of academic dishonesty in America was quite high. Among the excuses given for such behaviors were meeting the high academic targets, ignorance, personal hardships and the assumption that no one had been victimized from cheating. Apart from these claims, studies have revealed that the repercussions of cheating are greater than merely being caught.

McCrosky and Young explain that students who tend to cheat and get away develop a tendency of cheating. As they continue to consistently cheat, their cheating is rationalized as a matter of easing their conscience. The study findings show that learners, who depend on cheating, value grades for the sake of grades themselves, and not really value education, as they are expected to. Further, the ethical shortcomings which cheating students harbored could develop long into their adulthood.

Theoretical Perspective

Social Conflict

Social conflict was a theory, which was postulated by Karl Marks. According to this theory, a society harbors different classes of people. Further, these classes can be categorized into two major groups: the poor vs. the wealthy.

According to this theory, the wealthy employ their power and authority in oppressing the poor. In the perspective of this theory, the different groups within a capitalist society have a tendency of interacting in a negative way. A part from this interaction allowing little cooperation, it does not also create a mutual benefit.

Similarly, high stakes testing has tended to cause a social rift within the society. The rich can always find the best schools for their children as well as the best resources available. Schools are the arena where some students fail. A failure in school is the determinant of what life one will live out there. Although it may be believed that failure may be caused by lack of one’s effort or merit, there is a close relationship between failures in school and the structures inherent within the class and racial inequality.

On the other hand, the system may be said to have streamlined the social biases that had been intertwined with racial and ethnic classes. This occurs in the sense that the education follows a standardized curriculum irrespective of the place or school.

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Planned Behavior Theory

The theory of planned behavior may be effective here in providing clarity to the association of the relation of different antecedents with behaviors related to academic cheating. According to this theory, the intent of engaging in a specific behavior is influenced by various factors. These include, but are not limited to the perceptions concerning the particular behavior, expectations and values associated with such behavior, and perceived level of difficulty caused by such a behavior (Stone, Jawahar, & Kisamore).

The attitude of students concerning academic cheating may be caused by intended or unintended communication from parents, the community culture and beliefs that do not take into consideration school ethics. It is this communication or lack of it that creates an attitude of students considering that academic dishonesty is permissible as a way of meeting expectations. Apparently, the beliefs of students regarding academic cheating and the ethical impact could be affected by the intended or unintended communication by the student’s peers, parents, school and the communities. This may increase the urge for these students to employ various methods in academic cheating. The planned behavior theory explains why academic dishonesty is rampant and also how the negative impacts of this behavior spread far beyond the walls of the school.

Hidden Curriculum

There is some evidence from studies articulating that the high stakes tests have generated a hidden curriculum. For instance, educators are placing more emphasis on math and English subjects, as well as the subjects that follow the No Child Left Behind scheme. Further, much time is spent on theoretical concepts at the expense of physical activities and other aspects of schooling. In most cases, subjects that are not tested are sidelined. The curriculum is therefore not fully implemented.


The high stakes testing method is full of both risks and opportunities to students. Students with disabilities, language learners, including those of color are among the beneficiaries. In a different perspective, the students could also be at risk, especially in areas that oversee high stakes graduation and promotion tests. It should be noted, however, that it may not be possible to educate all students at the same level. In addition, there is no society that has ever attained that.

Moreover, achieving this objective is not a simple matter. The desirability and necessity of high stakes testing is questionable. Nonetheless, one thing is clear and it is the fact that if high stakes testing should go on, then it is important that it is implemented correctly. States that do not adhere to the basic principles of this testing are certainly putting students and themselves at risk.

Despite the fact that high stakes testing system ensures that teachers use a standardized curriculum and guarantees accountability, the negative effect of such a system cannot be underestimated. It is therefore important for policy makers to reexamine this policy concerning its pros and cons. So far, this system has not effectively solved the education challenges inherent to our country.

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