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Burnt at the High Stakes
  
Review by Jonathan Pollard

As we move away from the classroom, and through the various levels of educational bureaucracy - first principals, then progressing to administrators, school board members, state board members, state legislators, and governors - support for standardized testing grows.  For the politicians who use classroom visits as occasional photo opportunities, supporting standardized testing and other means of producing 'accountability' make it appear as though they hold the future of our children in the highest priority.  It couldn't be further from the truth.  Most politicians don't care about real education, they care about reelection.  We are fooled into believing the argument that, if we truly cared about the education of our children, we would 'raise the bar' and make testing an even more aspect of the curriculum.  This has given rise to the implementation of what Kohn terms "high stakes testing."  This method is advocated by government officials as a means of forcing students and teachers to care about testing.  The author describes it as follows:

    High stakes testing often involves the use of bribery and coercion.  Sometimes teachers and schools can receive bonuses for increased test scores.  Students might receive food, tickets to theme parks or sporting events, and other such perks.  Threats may include loss of funding or accreditation for schools, failure of a grade and even denial of a high school diploma for students. 

    The idea of high stakes testing goes hand in hand with the idea of 'accountability'.  But can teachers and schools be fairly held accountable for the scores of their students?  Low scores are often, to a large extent, due to social and economic factors over which even the best teachers and the best schools have no control.  These factors include the amount of resources available to a given school and the affluence of the community.  But even to the extent that scores do reflect classroom experiences, those experiences are hardly limited to the current year.  It seems unjust to hold a fourth-grade teacher accountable for her students' poor test scores when those scores reflect not only what has happened in her classroom, but also what the children have learned (or failed to learn) in their prior years schooling. 

    No test is perfect, and there is always the possibility that errors may be present on the physical test, or that errors may occur in the grading process.  Every so often, the big test publishers make some major mistake in the correction of their exams.  In one such episode, New York City officials ordered nearly 9,000 students to attend remedial summer school on the basis of a scoring error. 

    The idea of giving people an incentive - or threatening them to improve, is a flawed one.  In order to produce temporary compliance, the proponents of standardized testing often advocate - through their actions - the creation of a climate of fear, in which people only cooperate to avoid being punished.  The system of punishments and rewards (external motivations) serves to strip children of their innate desire to learn (internal motivation).

High stakes testing has resulted in the following:

    Exaggerated reports of success.  In Texas, many proponents of standardized testing argue that the high stakes movement along with other means of holding people and schools accountable has been an integral part the state's improvement in test scores.  Others will argue that any improvement in the Texas educational system is not the result of high stakes testing, but rather, a product of smaller class sizes, overall increases in educational spending, and a court ordered equalization of resources between schools that serve the rich and schools that serve the poor. 

    Rather than learning anything of consequence, students are taught how to beat the test.  Consider this passage taken directly from Kohn's book:

When tests are first administered, the scores are distressingly low.  (And the headlines read: Our schools are failing!  Our students are ignorant!)  After a year or two, the scores begin to rise as students and teachers get used to the test.  (And the headlines read: Our schools are improving! Tougher standards are working!)  Then the scores level off or begin to drop, or, if a new test is substituted for the original one, even plummet.  (We've gown complacent!  Even tougher standards are needed!)

This is not due to a change in the competency of teachers, or level of instruction.  This is simply the process of students and teachers acclimating to the tests. 

    Good teachers and principals leave the profession.  Those individuals who realize that the priorities of the educational system are entirely skewed, and are often not able to remain in an environment where they are forced to implement a curriculum that they are ethically opposed to.  Those teachers who truly value education often cannot tolerate a system that is centered on test scores rather than actual learning. 

    Those educators who do not leave the system often become defensive and competitive.  In the high stakes environment, they are forced to do all that they can to raise the test scores of their students.  They are forced to defend themselves and their teaching methods when their students score low.

    Cheating has become widespread.  And not only is cheating occurring on the part of the students. Teachers - under similar pressure - have been caught giving inappropriate help to students during the exams, or even going so far as to alter the answer sheets after the exams are completed.  Such behavior is condemned by the media, the politicians, and the school boards.  But what about the system that produces this behavior?

    Rather than focusing on true understanding or higher level reasoning, educational curriculum becomes more and more fact oriented.  As the tests become more fact based, teachers - in order to prepare their students for the exams, and to avoid a condemnation of their teaching methods or punitive actions - tailor their classes to the tests.  Education becomes dry, boring, and predictable, and concerns itself with nothing but the barest of facts. 

    The high stakes movement is centered around the notion of quantification.  But education is not necessarily a quantifiable entity.  Since when are only the things that are measurable by standardized tests considered important?  The best and most innovative educational programs that presently exist in our country are being eliminated, because their results cannot be readily reduced to a series of meaningless numbers.