Category Archives: Testing

Testing the joy out of learning

In the March issue of Educational Leadership, Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner published the article, “Testing the joy out of Learning.”

They note that school cultures dominated by high-stakes tests are creating more and more reluctant learners.

What has all this testing achieved? Five years after NCLB was enacted, here is no convincing evidence that student learning has increased in any significant way on tests other than the states’ own tests. On measures such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), no reliable increases in scores have occurred, nor have achievement gaps between students of higher and lower socioeconomic classes narrowed.

In contrast, a wealth of documentation indicates
that the unintended and largely negative effects of high-stakes testing are pervasive and a cause for concern (see Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003; Orfield & Kornhaber, 2001). In our own research, we have documented hundreds of cases in which high-stakes testing has harmed teaching and learning (Nichols & Berliner, 2007). For example, high-stakes testing has been associated with suspicious forms of data manipulation, as well as outright cheating. The tests undermine teacher-student relationships, lead to a narrowing of the curriculum, demoralize teachers, and bore students.

Research has not fully examined the impact of this
test-dominated school environment on students’ attitudes and dispositions toward learning. But we suspect that for most students, schooling is less joyful than it was; and for reluctant learners, schooling is worse than ever.

Also alarming is the increasing abundance of pep rallies ice cream socials, and I think signs like the one I posted about earlier today that clearly deliver the message that testing is the primary focus for learning.

I’ve said it before but I’m going to repeat it again…..high-stakes testing continues to be our biggest obstacle for needed change in education.



A sign of the times


I saw this sign on the way to a school earlier this week. I guess this is what you call a “sign of the times.” I was telling a fellow teacher about this sign and she told me that she knew of other schools who had begun the count down on the first day of school. Hmmmm, I find the sign truly depressing.

I’d rather see a sign with this quote from William Butler Yeats:

“Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire.”

High-Stakes Testing Is Putting the Nation at Risk

This commentary by David C. Berliner & Sharon L. Nichols was published back in March on Education Week. We all need to add this to our arsenal of facts about high-stakes testing. I don’t know if you will be able to access it from Education Week or not so I have also found a link on a forum where you can read it. I want it in my list of references on this topic. The authors conclude the article with this paragraph that says it all in my mind

Our research informs us that high-stakes testing is hurting students, teachers, and schools. It is putting the nation at risk. By restricting the education of our young people and substituting for it training for performing well on high-stakes examinations, we are turning America into a nation of test-takers abandoning our heritage as a nation of thinkers, dreamers, and doers.

The authors have documented hundreds of examples of the ways in which high-stakes testing corrupts American education in a new book, “Collateral Damage.” Many of the examples in the article are ones that we have all seen. Here are a couple of more quotes:

Because so much depends on how students perform on tests, it should not be surprising that, as one Florida superintendent noted, “When a low-performing child walks into a classroom, instead of being seen as a challenge, or an orpportunity for improvement, for the first time since I’ve been in education, teachers are seeing [that child] as a liability.”

We also documented the narrowing of the curriculum to just what is tested, and found a huge increase in time spent in test preparation instead of genuine instruction.

I wonder when we will ever address how to improve student learning. When will we address the issue of nurturing “life-long learners?” Students should be encouraged to think, discuss, observe and create. Now in schools there is little time for that. High-stakes testing continues to be our biggest obstacle for needed change in education.

Another voice heard from on testing

To continue the conversation on testing I just read this on ASCD Smart Brief which by the way is one of my favorites reads. You can subscribe here.

Education about more than test scores….

Hear! Hear! Xavier University adjunct professor Timothy Leonard says that under NLCB, curricula geared toward students from disadvantaged backgrounds are too focused on test scores. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Most teachers know that standards are negotiated every day between themselves and their students who will learn only what they choose to learn. The trick is to encourage them to learn far beyond what they originally intended. Turning that trick takes knowledge, persistence, ingenuity, patience, trust, active listening, toughness, kindness, humor, and a willingness to engage students in active learning. Teachers are doing this every day throughout our region, yet the only thing that seems to matter to politicians and bureaucrats are the scores.


Scores are important. But they must be viewed in the context of what teachers know about what is happening in their classrooms. Under the current regime, what is happening in the classroom, if viewed at all, is viewed in the context of the scores. This is nuts. It’s like a parent saying, “If you think the baby is cute, you should see the pictures” – except in this case all you see is a number.


The renewal of NCLB needs to shift its intense focus away from test scores to the care, support and encouragement of teachers. This means more money for salaries, staff development, and programs to make sure teachers develop the skills that research tells us it takes to engage students to choose to become knowledgeable in the arts and sciences as well as reading and mathematics, and to become responsible citizens.

Hmmmm. Maybe we should head to the streets and start handing out some fliers! Go for it!

If no child gets ahead, then no child will be left behind

Liz Ditz recently left a comment on my post about testing. A little humor sometimes goes a long way to help me put frustrations at bay, at least momentarily. If you are not reading her blog, I Speak of Dreams, you’re missing out. Her comment needs to be enjoyed by others so in case you missed it:

Did you see NCLB–The Football Version?

Author Unknown

l. All teams must make the state playoffs, and all will win the championship. If a team does not win the championship, they will be on probation until they are the champions, and coaches will be held accountable.

2. All kids will be expected to have the same football skills at the same time and in the same conditions. No exceptions will be made for interest in football, a desire to perform athletically, or genetic abilities or disabilities. ALL KIDS WILL PLAY FOOTBALL AT A PROFICIENT LEVEL

3. Talented players will be asked to work out on their own without instruction. This is because the coaches will be using all their instructional time with the athletes who aren’t interested in football, have limited athletic ability, or whose parents don’t like football.

4. Games will be played year round, but statistics will only be kept in the 4th, 8th, and 11th games.

5. This will create a New Age of sports where every school is expected to have the same level of talent and all teams will reach the same minimal goals.

If no child gets ahead, then no child will be left behind.

High-stakes testing is one of our biggest obstacles to overcome!

An article, Standardized tests can send students who fail into a tailspin, from the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle (NY) features a principal arguing for testing reform. Hear! Hear! Our insanity about testing really is one our biggest obstacles in transforming education. It does my soul good to hear a principal speaking out. Some points he makes:

  • The purpose of testing should be to help students grow academically, not to coerce higher test performances through public scrutiny and humiliation. We need more authentic valid assessments. Volumes of research prove that subjective teacher assessment is a much more accurate predictor of student success than any single standardized test score.
  • Test writers construct standardized tests for the purpose of creating a wide range of scores, with roughly half scoring above average and the other half below.
  • Standardized test scores do not tell how well schools are preparing students as citizens and leaders. Characteristics such as leadership, perseverance, listening skills and compassion are far more accurate predictors of success. Standardized tests can’t measure that.
  • The emphasis on high-stakes standardized testing is creating a culture of failure among many students.
  • Students who are poor, who are from English-as-a-second language families, who have special education needs, who desire to have a vocational education or who have unique interests or learning styles, have suffered under the one-size-fits-all.

Dan Drmacich says if you agree you should voice you concerns to school district officials, state and federal representatives.

This is an area where we need to do much more. Add to the obstacles wiki any links that will help us fight this. We need to do more than just speak to school officials and state and federal reps. Let’s collect a bank of data and break out of the blogs and take back our jobs of teaching. Yes we want accountability but assessment needs to come from a variety of sources. A while back Chris Lehmann posted here and referred us to Classroom Assessment: A Brave New World by Dr. Douglas D. Christensen.

The culture of high stakes testing is toxic. It not only takes the oxygen out of the work, it also makes all the wrong things important, as if they are the right things. For example, high stakes testing treats students, teachers and data as “commodities” to be manipulated as variables in some kind of strange economy or in some perverse experiment. In addition, I believe high stakes testing freezes the current system in place treating current practice as if it is good practice and practice that should be continued even though the whole point of accountability is to improve the system where a lot of current practice does not work. High stakes testing standardizes the current schooling model assuming it can work for all students, in all settings and under all conditions and we know that it does not and we know that it cannot. High stakes testing prevents the very innovation we should be encouraging.

Dr. Christensen nails assessment down to the correct place – in our classrooms with our teachers.

Some of my previous posts on this topic:

A comment on high-stakes testing

I received this interesting comment from someone named Peter in reference to a post I made about challenging high-stakes testing back in March 2006.  I think the comment is worth repeating here. It gives us more to think about on this issue. Peter had no link and I have not seen this research before. Does anyone know where it might be located?

The Issue of High Stakes Testing
High stakes testing has officially become a virus to the American educational community. While standardized testing was once simply an indicator of individuals’ and schools’ overall levels of performance, it has now become a life or death issue for both parties, preventing individuals from progressing educationally and, in some cases, causing funding for lagging schools to be discontinued completely. The effects of such tests are easily visible inside of the classroom, as the immense consequences that come with these tests both prevent teachers from effectively educating their students and have overwhelmingly negative psychological effects on the children being subjected to them. The effects of these tests are also beginning to become more visible outside of the classroom, in the “real world”, as they clearly discourage social mobility by preventing those in the lower ranks of society from bettering their socioeconomic status.
The massive amount of emphasis that teachers are forced to place on material covered by high stakes tests leaves them with little time to instruct their students in many essential aspects of education that do not happen to appear on the tests. In High Stakes: Poverty, Testng, and Failure In American Schools, a depiction of a year spent teaching in a poor Louisiana school (one which is legally required to administer high stakes tests), David and Bonnie Johnson illustrate the manner in which they are required to “teach to the test” by directly following the instructions that they, as well as the rest of the elementary school staff, received at the beginning of the school year: “You must teach to mastery all the objectives that will be tested on the LEAP and Iowa tests [the high stakes tests administered in this school district]. Skip the others until after the tests next March. We have no time to teach fluff” (Johnson & Johnson 30). The Johnsons then go on to illustrate the negative effects that “teaching to the test” has on the education of their pupils. For example, due to the fact that teachers are forced to focus on syllabication rather than reading comprehension, the Johnson’s pupils are oftentimes able to pronounce words, but not understand them: “They can pronounce the word ‘harp’, but they have no idea what the word means” (Johnson & Johnson 72). The Johnsons sum up their frustration with their inability to truly educate their pupils by stating: “It has become clear even to the most optimistic that school is no longer for education. Schools are now test prep centers, and woe be to those who don’t do enough prepping” (Johnson &Johnson 31).
It has become increasingly clear that high-stakes testing plays a large role in preventing students from the lower classes from using education as a way to improve their socioeconomic situations. To begin with, the expectations that these tests have of students is inherently slanted against students of the lower classes:
Children who have been in programs like those offered by the “Baby Ivies” since the age of two have, by now, received the benefits of six or seven years of education, nearly twice as many as the children who have been denied these opportunities; yet all are required to take, and will be measured by, the same examinations” (Kozol 46).
In other words, middle and upper class children are able to approach these examinations with a great deal of knowledge that lower class children, held to the same standards, do not possess. Lower class children are therefore put at a great disadvantage, and are therefore much more likely to fail the test. While this clearly prevents many of them from progressing to the next grade, failing the test also carries a number of other likely consequences. For example, in Silenced Voices and Extraordinary Conversations, an examination of lower-class students, Michelle Fine and Lois Weis mention that:
The proliferation of increased high-stakes testing means that more students will leave high school without a diploma, at just the moment when the presence of a high school diploma is a critical economic litmus test separating the haves from the have nots. While the origins of the ‘standards movement’ may have been systematic accountability, the consequences… for poor and working-class students are likely to be devastating (Fine & Weis 9).
While it may seem trivial that a child cannot progress a grade while in elementary school, the fact that these tests prevent students that desperately need a degree, oftentimes even deserve one (the authors mention a boy that has a 95 average and a very high ranking in his class who is still at risk of graduating without a diploma due to his failure of high-stakes tests), is a harsh reminder of the terrible amount of power that these standardized tests have over the lives of lower-class American students.
Aside from affecting drastically affecting their futures, high-stakes testing also takes a large psychological toll on American students. For example, Daniel and Bonnie Johnson describe the psychological torment that they witnessed in their third and fourth grade classrooms on the day that the tests were administered: “As the children begin the first timed test, Kelvin vomits in his hands and runs to the bathroom…Gerard takes one look at the first section and begins to cry” (Johnson & Johnson 137). Clearly such behavior is a result of the anxiety that the students feel upon facing such a deterministic challenge. Later on in the book, they quote a “veteran fourth grade teacher” as saying: “High-Stakes testing is putting an unprecedented form of pressure on districts, teachers, and students. When we have to hire extra janitorial staff on high-stakes testing days to clean up the vomit, we know that things are getting ridiculous” (Johnson & Johnson 224). While this kind of anxiety may be condoned in college-bound seniors facing the SAT for the first time, the fact that third and fourth graders are forced to face this kind of mental trauma is nothing short of absurd.
High-stakes tests are much more than a waste of a few hours that could be put to better use in the classroom; they are a socially oppressive, mentally traumatic force that is increasingly being unleashed upon American students. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our society is currently unaware of the issue, and it is therefore being allowed to worsen by the day. I ask anyone reading this to please make some sort of effort, be it through a letter, a donation, etc. to put an end to what is quickly becoming one of the most prevalent social injustices in modern American society. 

More on high stakes testing

I have blogged about high stakes testing many times, like here, here, here, and here. Maria, one of my students, blogged about it, as many of my students have.
Today I read States Have More Schools Falling Behind in the Washington Post. Listen to this quote:

Under the 2002 law, schools that do not make sufficient academic progress face penalties including the eventual replacement of their administrators and teachers.

The article talks about states manipulating the results. Then this:

The law, however, allows states to adjust both their tests and the formulas by which they calculate “adequate yearly progress,” leaving parents and policymakers unable to make definite conclusions about such numbers, analysts including Petrilli said. .

I’m so sick of these meaningless conversations, quotes, and rhetoric. Why is learning linked with punishment? Punishment for educators, students, and now even test makers are being called to task. Where is our leadership? Where are our voices? It’s time to start asking different questions and it’s time for our leaders to help us change our schools into places that inspire a love for learning. Roland Barth says this far better than I ever could in The Culture Builder and in Improving Relationships Within the Schoolhouse.

Challenge high-stakes testing

I wish I could attend the ASCD conference this year. As usual though, the conference blog is outstanding. Isn’t blogging great? We get so many inside views, timely posts and a cross-section of perspectives on issues. This post entitled Historical Knowledge: A Challenge to Standardized Testing is a story that needs to be told. It is a story that counteracts the prevailing stories of test scores that Dave Warlick speaks about so effectively. We need more stories like this.

Dave says:

We have become convinced that test scores indicate an effective school and a successfully educated student, and by extension, a citizen who will prosper, contribute, and be happy in their future. It’s a story that is pretty easy to swallow because it is simple, and it connects easily to our own education-experiences of 10, 20, or 40 years ago. It’s the reason why we need a new story that will be so compelling, that it will shatter the ideas of high-stakes testing, by showing it to be totally irrelevant to our children’s future, and might I add, “our future.”

Now an excerpt from the ASCD blog post:

If U.S. students perform poorly on tests that measure their grasp of things historical, blame it on the test, says Marc Turner, a lead teacher at Blythewood High School in Blythewood, South Carolina. Turner, named the 2005 Secondary Teacher of the Year by the National Council for the Social Studies, states that if you “look at 100 years of social studies testing, our kids have scored low,” but it’s just the nature of the discipline, he says. Indeed, Turner just isn’t persuaded that a history assessment tells anyone very much about what students know.

Wineburg has noted that, because of mediocre tests results, many Americans are convinced that students don’t know history. The truth, Wineburg is quoted as saying, is that students haven’t memorized the lists of facts that test makers have determined are important to know.

This is the best part:

So, have students write historical narratives instead of taking tests, says Turner. “We should be promoting history as an interpretive experience,” suggests Turner. “There’s nothing wrong when kids reach potentially different conclusions about an event,” he observes—historians disagree all the time. What’s more, once students have written their narratives, they can “compare their interpretations to those of other scholars in the field,” making for a rich learning experience.

This is authentic assessment. I’d like to see a lot of these narratives on blogs where we could get lots of kids thinking about the different conclusions and adding to the ideas. The post notes that this will be a hot topic this year at the ASCD Annual Conference. I hope we will hear a lot more stories about these types of authentic assessments. Stories that will shatter the old stories Dave refers to “of seats in rows, nine-pound textbooks, lectures day-in and day-out, and the notion that we can measure success with a bubble sheet.”

There’s another interesting post on the ASCD blog, The Stakes Are High.

ASCD in 2004 issued a position statement calling high-stakes testing “an inappropriate use of assessment.”

The problem: High-stakes testing often fails to adequately measure what students know and are able to do. Even the best standardized tests often return results too late for educators to adapt classroom practices in ways that would help students.

They include an ASCD poll. This gives you the opportunity to give your opinion on the effect of high-stakes testing in schools. They also invite you to “tell us more about your experience with high-stakes tests.”

Share your opinions on the poll, then go blog about your challenges to high stakes testing. Here’s a couple of my previous posts on the subject:

Questions to Answer

Testing, Technology, Writing, & Learning