Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation's Schools


Measuring what and how well students learn is an important building block in the process of strengthening and improving our nation's schools. Tests, along with student grades and teacher evaluations, can provide critical measures of students' skills, knowledge, and abilities. Therefore, tests should be part of a system in which broad and equitable access to educational opportunity and advancement is provided to all students. Tests, when used properly, are among the most sound and objective ways to measure student performance. But, when test results are used inappropriately or as a single measure of performance, they can have unintended adverse consequences.

Today, many school districts are mandating tests to measure student performance and to hold individual schools and school systems accountable for that performance. Knowing if and what students are learning is important. Test results give classroom teachers important information on how well individual students are learning and provide feedback to the teachers themselves on their teaching methods and curriculum materials.

It is important to remember, however, that no test is valid for all purposes. Indeed, tests vary in their intended uses and in their ability to provide meaningful assessments of student learning. Therefore, while the goal of using large-scale testing to measure and improve student and school system performance is laudable, it is also critical that such tests are sound, are scored properly, and are used appropriately.

Some public officials and educational administrators are increasingly calling for the use of tests to make high-stakes decisions, such as whether a student will move on to the next grade level or receive a diploma. School officials using such tests must ensure that students are tested on a curriculum they have had a fair opportunity to learn, so that certain subgroups of students, such as racial and ethnic minority students or students with a disability or limited English proficiency, are not systematically excluded or disadvantaged by the test or the test-taking conditions. Furthermore, high-stakes decisions should not be made on the basis of a single test score, because a single test can only provide a "snapshot" of student achievement and may not accurately reflect an entire year's worth of student progress and achievement.

The potential problem with the current increased emphasis on testing is not necessarily the test, per se, but the instances when tests have unintended and potentially negative consequences for individual students, groups of students, or the educational system more broadly. But, it is also critical to remember that, in many instances, without tests, low-performing students and schools could remain invisible and therefore not get the extra resources or remedial help that they need.

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