It's Testing Season!

What are the effect of high-stakes testing on children, teachers, and schools?

Posted Apr 08, 2016

In schools all across the United States, it’s testing season! Pencils have been sharpened. Computer mouses have been given fresh batteries. Testing pep rallies have been held. In Georgia where we live, most testing starts next week.

The Brookings Institute has estimated that the United States spends approximately $1.7 billion (yep, you read that right, billion with a “b”) on statewide high-stakes testing each year (1). The tests are supposed to measure just how much children have learned from their teachers in the past year. Being closely aligned with each states’ curriculum, the tests should determine whether children have actually learned what they should have been taught. With so much money spent on high-stakes testing, what can possibly go wrong?

A lot has.

Policymakers were originally optimistic about the effects of these tests. In 2001, there was rare bipartisan legislative agreement around the need to test student achievement, resulting in the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB was intended to close the achievement gaps between the rich and poor, bilinguals and monolinguals, and children of color and others. These gaps had been large and persistent for decades and they threatened the future prosperity of our country. The legislation tied significant funds for education to a regimen of testing designed to measure progress made in closing these gaps. Its lofty, if not downright impossible, goal was that 100% of America’s children would be performing at grade level (whatever that meant) by 2014. With these tests, one school could be compared to another, and even one teacher could be compared to another. NCLB sought reassurance that everyone was working toward narrowing the gap; it had teeth. Bad schools could be closed down. Inept teachers could be fired. Parents could transfer their children from failing schools.

The year 2014 came and went with little fanfare. By no means had the achievement gaps vanished, but some progress had been made, perhaps. Children’s scores improved a little, mostly in math, mostly in elementary school, and mostly among poor children and children of color (2). As we have personally worked in high poverty schools, we have seen that more teachers focus on the learning of all students now and actively seek ways to reach them.  Children are now reading reasonably well in schools where we might have been told previously that the graduating fifth graders “can’t read a lick! But what can you expect, considering where they’re from…” But the United States did not move up on the international assessments given by Program for the International Assessment of Children (PISA). So internationally, no gains had been made, and certainly 100% of children were not “at grade level.”

It can be difficult, even for those of us who live in the middle of all this, to make sense of it.  Time has revealed that there were problems with the high-stakes tests associated with NCLB, some of which have made it into the public parlance and others of which are a bit more wonky.

At the school level, few “failing” schools actually got closed down (although exact numbers are hard to come by). A lot of principals were dismissed, and this caused a sea change in attitudes of teachers working under them. Where schools were closed down, privatizing public schools seemed to be the main motive.  Charter school companies rushed in and vouchers were provided for private schooling.  But the sanctions did sometimes result in improvements in children’s test scores (3).

It also became obvious that were serious issues around using children’s test scores to evaluate teachers. Assignment of children to schools is anything but random, and the tests themselves are of uneven quality. A teachers’ performance depends greatly on which children she gets assigned in the first place. If she is assigned the children with the greatest needs, she will soon be designated an inadequate teacher because these children usually show the smallest growth on tests. The likelihood of being designated a good teacher (i.e., top 20%) using children’s test scores over sequential years is incredibly small. One study of New York City Public School System literacy teachers found that among the top 20% of teachers in the first year, only five teachers out of thousands remained in the top 20% throughout the next few years! (4) Did all these great teachers suddenly become poor ones? Not likely.  

The idea that we could fire all the bad teachers was also never realistic. There are just not enough able replacements to do that.  Years of public flogging of the teaching profession has had the unsurprising effect of reducing the number of smart undergraduates who choose education as their major.

The most important targets of high-stakes testing, and the ones we should care about the most -- the children -- suffered, too. Like clockwork, during testing season, the news media pelts us with stories of stress-related illness in children being tested. Children are reported crying and throwing up in wastebaskets all across America because of the tests. These anecdotal reports have been backed up by scientific studies revealing increased test anxiety among children taking the state tests compared to regular tests (5). Children have, indeed, reported increased physical symptoms of anxiety such as shaking, nausea, headaches, and dizziness.

Instead of getting more resources, children who needed extra help most found that those resources were focused on mainly the children nearest the “meets” standards cutoff, sometimes known in schools as the ”bubble children.” Some older children, knowing that they could not pass graduation tests, simply dropped out (6). Children found that sometimes subjects they liked, such as art, music, and physical education, were eliminated so that resources and time could go to tested subjects (7). The amount of time that children spent on test preparation in classrooms in some districts was downright shocking! (8)

There was gaming of the testing system in various states (9). Some states set a pretty low bar for what a passing score was. What state wants to be known for having a lot of kids who can’t read? Children who thought that they were doing okay later found out they really weren’t.

These are only some of the issues associated with these high-stakes tests. The problems with testing are now so apparent that the Senate passed the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), which requires the use of measures beyond the tests, in evaluating student success. It also limits the number of tests given. Is high-stakes testing dead?

We think not.


1. Ujifusa, A. (2012). Standardized testing costs states $1.7 billion a year, study says.

2. Dee, T., & Jacob, B.A. (2010).  Evaluating NCLB.

3. Ahn, T., & Vigdor, J. (2013). Were all those standardized tests for nothing? The lessons of No Child Left Behind. Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute.

4. Baker, B. (2012). On the stability (or not) of being irreplaceable.

5. Segool, N. K., Carlson, J.S., Goforth, A.N., von der Embse, N., & Barterian, J.A. (2013). Heightened test anxiety among young children Elementary school students’ anxious responses to high-stakes testing. Psychology in the Schools, 50(5), 489-499.

6. Negative Implications Of No Child Left Behind: As Graduation Rates Go Down, School Ratings Go Up.

7. Cawelti, G. (2006). The Side Effects of NCLB. Educational Leadership, 64(3), 64-68.

8. Nelson, H. (2013). Testing more, teaching less: America’s obsession with student testing costs money and lost instructional time.

9. Bandeira de Mello, V. (2011). Mapping State Proficiency Standards Onto the NAEP Scales: Variation and Change in State Standards for Reading and Mathematics, 2005–2009 (NCES 2011-458). National Center for Education Statistics, Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, Washington, DC: Government Printing Office.