High-Stakes Tests: Ensuring Accurate Reflections of Student Learning

by Patricia Jordan Rea

Teachers have always been committed to the success of their students. Typically in public education, success is measured in terms of good test scores. But in this age of education reform and heightened teacher accountability, the emphasis placed on these measures of student achievement has increased significantly. They are used in both instructional and political ways. That is, student performance can impact critical issues such as funding, accreditation, and employment of professional staff in addition to individual academic status. Now as never before, parents, patrons, and politicians are using student assessments to determine whether schools are "good" or "bad." Although we know that multiple factors affect how well students perform in school in general and on tests in particular, the buck seems to have stopped right at the classroom door. Given the national, state, and local attention focused on public education and its shortcomings, it is crucial that teachers elicit optimal assessment performance from all students. The following strategies can encourage students and increase chances that they will demonstrate skills they have been taught:

  • Explain to students the purpose of tests.  For example, so the state can measure how well our school is meeting the needs of our students; so that I can tell if we need to work on this unit more before we move on.

  • Acknowledge the importance of tests as opportunities to demonstrate mastery of material.

  • Concede that taking tests is stressful for most of us but that learning to cope with stress is an important life skill that will be helpful in a variety of situations.

  • Model appropriate behavior for your students by remaining calm in the testing situation, breathing deeply, and repeating positive messages to yourself. Demonstrate confidence rather than anxiety.

  • Share standard techniques for successful test performance.  For example, answering all questions you are certain you know first, drafting a brief outline of a discussion question before writing.

  • Provide pep talks rather than pressure in an attempt to help students establish a perspective on assessment of their work. The truth is that most children (and their parents!) put enough pressure on themselves to perform. They need their teachers to reinforce that they are capable and worthy.

  • Precede assessment sessions with a stress-releasing activity. Read a funny or inspiring story.  Share a personal anecdote. Play a game. Go for a short walk.

  • Create an atmosphere in which students can relax as much as possible. Routinely check noise, lights, temperature, unnecessary distractions.

  • Breaks, snacks, and drinks of water can be helpful. Scientific research shows that humans think more clearly if their bodies are nourished and fully hydrated.

  • When you have control of the test content, make it valid and important, worth students' effort and time.

  • Whenever possible, offer a variety of testing locations, times, settings, and formats.  Some students are not at their best until mid-day. Some can write eloquent essays but are confounded by true-false questions.

  • Be sensitive to personal circumstances. An illness or upsetting personal event may depress a student's performance and be a legitimate reason for delaying administration of tests.

  • Familiarize your students with various testing formats (multiple choice, true-false, essay, etc.).

  • Aim to match the format of your teacher-made assessments to the content.

  • Implement any accommodations or modifications required to address a student's disability. We have a moral, legal, and ethical obligation to provide equitable opportunities for students to demonstrate their learning.

  • As professionals we realize that there are larger issues to be faced than whether classrooms are too warm or whether a multiple-choice format is the most appropriate for the subject matter. There are commitments each of us as educators can make to improve both the assessment process itself and the use of resulting data.  These include the following:

    • Decide to move beyond your frustration about testing requirements imposed by your school district or by the state. While we may argue with assessment format, content, interpretation, or use, we have to trust that professionals who develop and/or adopt statewide assessment systems have produced or chosen instruments that are technically sound. Stewing about these things wastes energy that  could be devoted to children.

    • Set a goal of learning all that you can about assessment principles and effective practices. The vast majority of testing going on in schools continues to be through teacher-made tests. The more you know, the more technically sound your tests will be and the more valid the data you obtain for making instructional decisions.

    • Participate actively in committees, task forces, and teacher organizations at the building, district, state, or national level that make critical decisions about how we measure the success of our children and our schools. Be a voice for reason and sound practice.

    • Allow no test, no matter how technically sound, to be the sole criterion for your decision-making about students.

Our primary goal as educators is to provide top-quality instruction in relevant, meaningful curricula. No amount of engineering of the testing situation will correct for substandard instruction. But because high-stakes testing is occurring and the results are being intensely scrutinized, leaving student performance to chance is unwise. We owe it to our students, our communities, and ourselves to enable our students to perform in ways that most accurately reflect their hard work and ours.

Date: February/March 1999