High Stakes Assessments

The topic of high stakes testing has been an issue in countries around the world, and especially so in the United States over the last decade or so. The intention of introducing more high stakes testing into schools in the United States was to ensure that no student was ‘left behind’ and bring up the overall scores to compete with other countries such as China; but the results are in:  most Americans believe the emphasis on standardized tests has actually worsened education in the U.S.

Over the past four years I have been working as a middle school teacher in China. Students in at that age don’t necessarily take many high stakes tests in Middle School. I think the  highest stake test they have taken from year 6 to 8 were the KET, PET, and FCE examinations. These tests include multiple choice timed tests, oral assessments, and written essays. Every year we stray from our taught curriculum to teach the test to the students a month before the examination date. The Cambridge English: Preliminary demonstrates language proficiency at Level B1 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. It is an intermediate level qualification and is designed to show that a successful candidate has the ability to use English language skills to deal with everyday written and spoken communications. Learners can use this qualification for education or work purposes, as well as to progress to higher level English language qualifications such as Cambridge English: First (FCE) for Schools. Many higher education institutions around the world accept and use Cambridge English: Preliminary as an indication of English language proficiency.

A more important test that is reserved for high school students and is extremely high stakes is the GaoKao. This test pretty much entirely determines each student’s academic and professional future.  Admission to colleges in China is based solely on the results of this test. Wealthy, highly motivated students spend hours each day for up to four years prepping for the test. High school curriculum in China are focused entirely on supporting kids to do well on the gaokao, to the exclusion of virtually all other learning objectives. The testing process is strongly biased towards students whose families can afford to pay for private test prep. Even though it’s a few years away for my students it’s known from age eleven that in order to have a successful educational career you must pass that gaokao.

In my middle school, our high stakes testing is primarily to test the teachers and their ability to teach. Therefore, it motivates the teachers to teach to the test and to endlessly drill the students to ensure they perform well. And to think, of the comparison when I was in middle school the only thing I had to worry about in  was forgetting my combination lock. I can only imagine how much more intense the pressure must be as soon as they reach grade nine.

As can be seen in the PISA scores from 2012, Shanghai scored highest on the math, reading, and science tests. From what I have seen in China, I am not necessarily surprised by these results because Chinese teachers are infamous for teaching to the test, as well as the fact that Chinese students spend long and grueling hours at school, often followed by weekend and evening tutoring. Often times, Chinese students are much less involved in extra-curricular activities, which are arguably a very important part of development.

Now, let’s turn to the high stakes testing that has been implemented in the U.S. due to the ‘No Child Left Behind Act’. I’ve spoken to many friends who are teachers in the U.S. about their opinions of NCLB and they unanimously agree that having that many standardized tests every year is detrimental to student creativity and time spent learning through hands-on experiences. My close friend is a teacher in Michigan, and stated to me: “Many teachers feel as though teaching information from the standardized tests is their primary objective. The children are basically learning how to take multiple choice tests, not how to apply the information in real life.”

This sentiment can be repeated throughout opinion pieces and reports regarding the effectiveness of NCLB. Sarah Holmes states, “Many believe that because there is such great pressure for students to receive a certain score or show the amount of growth required that curriculum has become too narrow and focusing only on getting through the test and less on real learning (2009).” Many teachers object to standardized testing because they believe it is in an inaccurate way to measure students knowledge based on different learning styles and doesn’t test in a variety of ways. “Employing standardized achievement tests to ascertain educational quality is like measuring temperature with a tablespoon,” James Popham says in regards to the effectiveness of testing knowledge through standardized tests.

Another issue with the frequent use of standardized high stakes testing is that the tests take up such a large portion of the learning time throughout the year. According to Anya Kamanetz, standardized tests and test prep takes up 40-50% of the year, especially in high testing years such as 11th grade (2014). The NCLB Act was implemented in 2002, and since then, 48% of Americans believe that NCLB has made education in America worse than before (Huffington Post, 2014).

“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.” -American Psychological Association

In conclusion, the high stakes testing that can be seen in the United States, as well as countries around the world such as China, may be deemed ‘necessary’ but is not without serious consequences. The most concerning of which is that teaching is no longer about authentic experiences, but about a child’s ability to fill in a multiple choice bubble.


American Psychological Association (N/A) “Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Testing in Our Nation’s Schools”. Retrieved September 18, 2016.  http://www.apa.org/pubs/info/brochures/testing.aspx

Holmes, Sarah (2009). “Standardized Testing and the No Child Left Behind Act: A Failing Attempt at Reform”. Retrieved September 18, 2016.  http://www.ecu.edu/cs-lib/reference/instruction/upload/Sarah_Holmes_First_Place.pdf

Huffington Post (2012). No Child Left Behind Worsened Education, 48 Percent Of Americans ‘Very Familiar’ With The Law. Retrieved September 18, 2016.   http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/08/21/no-child-left-behind-wors_n_1819877.html

Kamanetz, Anya. (2014) “Testing: How Much Is Too Much?” nprED. Retrieved September 18, 2016.   http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2014/11/17/362339421/testing-how-much-is-too-much

Popham, James. (2002). “Why Standardized Tests Don’t Measure Educational Quality” Retrieved September 18, 2016.  http://www.ascd.org/publications/educational-leadership/mar99/vol56/num06/Why-Standardized-Tests-Don’t-Measure-Educational-Quality.aspx