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High-stakes testing has long been a part of the education process in the United States. Since the inception of No Child Left Behind, the emphasis on the use of these tests has greatly increased. A high-stakes test is so named because the results of these tests are used to make significant decisions that can have great impacts on not only the test-taker, but on the teachers and schools that they are associated with. Due to the importance of test results on all parties involved, many questions and controversies have arisen regarding the use of high-stakes tests. Although high-stakes testing is a major part of the education process in the United States, high-stakes tests have made a detrimental impact on the education system, on special populations of students, and on the teachers, schools, and their communities.
One of the main goals of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is to ensure that all students reach proficiency in the challenging state academic standards in reading, science, and mathematics. To ensure that no students are left behind, NCLB requires that states must show that their students are making improvements, also known as annual yearly progress (AYP). The "proof" of success, or AYP, is measured through high-stakes assessments in which all students are required to participate in, and in some cases, must pass in order to receive a high school diploma. Based on these results teachers and schools are then to be "held accountable" for their students achievements (Hunt 119).
The federal NCLB law, which went into effect in 2002, has resulted in great controversy over whether a teacher should be focused on teaching simply to get the best results on the test or focused on the process and methods of learning. With their jobs at stake, teachers and schools are now focusing a lot of attention on state standardized testing and results. In order to insure that their students can pass these assessments, teachers often "teach the test." When this happens, what is not tested is not taught. Students may miss out on current events or important life skills and concepts simply because they are not on the test. They may also become "left behind" with developing their creativity, problem solving skills and critical thinking skills (Madaus, Russell, and Higgins 2-3).
Life skills, problem solving skills and critical thinking skills are all essential for success after school. Unfortunately these concepts may not be taught and can be lost to those who need them the most. This is just one example of the many difficulties facing the special populations of students. The problems that the high-stakes tests can cause for these special populations of students are just as varied as the students themselves. Though each of their challenges are different, English language learners, students with disabilities, minorities, and students from low-socioeconomic status often share the same end result of these high-stakes tests; they get left behind.
Although English language learners usually require years to become proficient in academic English, they are generally required to participate in high-stakes tests given in English with very limited accommodations. These accommodations, which generally include English-Native Language dictionaries without definitions and limited native language assistance that is limited to word or phrase translations, are largely irrelevant for students with low levels of English language ability (Giambo 47). The majority of the students who struggle to read academic English will not pass the high-stakes assessments, not because of their lack of knowledge of the concepts but because of their lack of English skills.
Participation in high-stakes assessments by students with disabilities has long been a controversial topic. A "key [component] of demonstrating AYP includes having at least 95% of all enrolled students", including those with special needs, participate in the assessments (Katsiyannis et al. 160). In many cases the special needs students, due to cognitive deficits, are not being taught the curriculum on which the high-stakes tests are based. In these cases the curriculum was not appropriate for their performance level or in compliance with their Individualized Education Plan; therefore, these students were taught an alternative curriculum on their level of functioning and will not pass the high-stakes assessments. Also, these students often have self-esteem issues as a result of the struggles they face every day in school. This group of students may be labeled as "failures", and may suffer even greater self-esteem issues as a result of not meeting the unobtainable standards they must meet in order to pass these tests.
The performances of students from minorities are directly affected by the cultural aspects of testing. According to George Madaus, Michael Russell, and Jennifer Higgins, family and cultural backgrounds influence students' behavior in the classroom and the way students view and interact with tests (61). "It is important [for us] to recognize that the way testing is viewed and approached in our society is [determined by both class and culture]" (Madaus, Russell, and Higgins 61). In order to succeed, these students are expected to adapt to the ways of the majority culture. Beginning at a very young age, the results of these high-stakes tests, whether good or bad, will determine how this student will be perceived and treated throughout the course of their education. When cultural differences cause a gap for the minority students, these students can face a lifetime of labeling and low expectations.
Considerable achievement gaps also linger among the underprivileged and the well-off students. According to Lay and Stokes-Brown, "across all racial groups, those who are highly educated" and well-off "tend to oppose high-stakes testing" (431).For these students, the gap lies directly in their socio-economic status. All too often, these students do not have an equal chance of learning the material on the test simply because they attend inadequately funded schools, have too many teachers that are not highly qualified, or maybe have insufficient books, libraries, and computers. These students may also face issues with family, housing, nutrition, and health care. The high-stakes tests that they are required to take, and in many cases pass in order to graduate or progress to the next grade, will punish them for circumstance beyond their control.
The impact of NCLB on the educations system in the United States has been significant in many aspects. The proponents of high-stakes testing will argue that this has been a positive impact; resulting in schools being forced to examine their performance and accomplishments. But this is not necessarily the case. Not only do high-stakes tests negatively affect students but they can also have negative effects on the teachers, schools, and their communities.
One of the many components of NCLB is that all schools must meet the AYP requirements set forth by their state by the year2014. In this state of urgency over higher standards, teachers are the first target of blame when schools do not meet AYP. Unfortunately, teachers do not have power over all the variables that lead to successful student performance on high-stakes assessments. In many cases, teachers are often overwhelmed with test scores and data and are constantly pressured about the importance of their student's performance. "It is important to recognize that high-stakes testing is in fact changing the educational environment of schools" (Au 101). As a result, "teachers [are losing] control of curricular decisions"(Au 101).
One of the major controversies currently surrounding high-stakes tests is that Federal funding is now directly related to academic accountability. When schools do not meet mandated AYP as determined by high-stakes assessments, they can be financially penalized. However, without full funding many school systems will not be able to afford the necessary supplies, teachers, and facilities needed to best prepare their students to succeed on the tests. According to Dale D. Johnson, Bonnie Johnson, Stephen J. Farenga, and Daniel Ness, "The less fortunate school, which is usually the one with the highest concentration of poverty and minority students, receives fewer resources. In spite of federal and state policies, talk of higher standards and increased funding for education, schools in poor communities are shortchanged"(119).
NCLB requires that high-stakes assessments be a determining factor as to whether or not schools are improving. While parents and the community have a right to know what is going on at their schools, high-stakes tests are not the best choice to provide sufficient information on how well a school is doing. When teachers and schools "teach the test" to produce better test scores it does not necessarily mean that the school is improving or that the children are learning more or learning better. These tests only show a small portion of what parents and the community need to know as the tests are limited to mathematics, reading, and in some case science. These tests also do not allow for other factors, such as background, health, house or resources that student has, or in some cases has not, been provided.
The way we use high-stakes testing today often punishes students, teachers, and schools for things that are many times beyond their control. High-stakes testing produces a lack of high-quality education as a result of a narrow and weak curriculum that many times fails to engage students' interest in their education. What is not tested is not taught, leaving students lacking in any area outside of reading, mathematics, and science. Many times the state of urgency surrounding high-stakes testing has a detrimental effect on English language learners, special needs students, minorities, and those with low socio-economic status. These tests hold teachers accountable and ultimately punish them for things that are often beyond their control. The results of these assessments are overly used as a measure of a schools quality, when they are in fact poorly designed, poorly executed, and largely inadequate indicators of a school's quality and progress. The bottom line is high-stakes testing hurts, rather than helps, today's education process in the United States, lending no improvements to education overall.