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I think that in today's modern world, everyone is determined to forge some type of accomplishment, whether it is academic or vocational. In some cases high stakes testing are used to determine most of these achievements. High stakes test are therefore used to verify a wide range of critical outcomes which allow students to progress to the next level. High stakes testing can be traced back to the 1965 authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). This was to improve making important decisions about students, teachers, and administrators in the elementary and secondary schools and also for evaluating the schools and school systems.
Clarke, Shore, Rhoades, Abrams, Miao, and Li (2003) found in their National Board study that accountability systems with high stakes test helped teachers target areas for future instruction, and transformed the emphasis on writing and critical thinking skills. I'm of the firm opinion that high stakes test allows students to analyse and assess a given problem or situation by mastering the key content knowledge and attaining the skills necessary for future success in education and workforce. Also teachers provide feedback so that adjustments and even restructuring could be applied.
With high stakes testing some teachers have adopted a more student-centred approaches Jones, Jones & Hargrove, (2003), and aligned their curriculum to the state standards, which in turn increased teacher collaboration Marshall (2003). Students have to be given the opportunity to build on their previous knowledge and formulate their own ideas as to make sense of what is being taught. The culture of the education has to be in coherence with the state or country to allow students to produce at an optimum level. Students must be able to relate and identify within their language, beliefs and norms.
High stakes testing also highlights the achievements gaps between rich and poor districts, rural and urban areas and among ethnic and cultural groups. Revealing these data can allow educators to address the prevalent problems, especially if rewards and sanctions to schools, teachers and students are specified. Administrators and teachers can pinpoint possible problems and readdress the curriculum and instructional activities consequently.
Conversely, the high stakes tests constrained many teachers' ability to teach creatively Gordon & Reese, (1997); Jones, Jones & Hargrove, (2003) and undermined their sense of professionalism and autonomy. Some of these high stake tests have defined curriculum and fashioned instruction. Teachers now have moved to where everything has got to be aligned and tightly structured. A sense of self-direction is no longer feasible due to the mandates and pressures to perform. Teachers are therefore teaching the curriculum and enforcing a strategic method of memorization - a student's ability to store and reproduce names, dates and facts for the benefit of passing a certain level of their academic achievement.
In addition to the above, high stakes test have the tendency to over test and under-examine students abilities and skills. This places an enormous amount of pressure on the teachers and students alike to follow a narrow curriculum and focus on memorizing facts instead of developing more advanced abilities. High stakes testing has maintained a narrow assessment of student capabilities and so students do what they must in order to pass the exam and nothing more. Education becomes a passive experience and this transcends the classroom to the work environment.
Finally by far the most compelling indictment of these high-stakes examinations is that they test what students know rather than what they can do and as such motivation is an overbearing factor. Education should be an active experience where students are constantly engaged and where a love for learning is developed, rather than a hatred for final exams. Ash and Persall (2000) stated that motivation can drastically hinder school improvement and create an apprehensive and stagnant environment in which teachers are isolated, without opportunities to collaboratively solve problems, share knowledge, or learn together.
In concluding the purpose of high stake tests is to improve student achievement. While students with learning disabilities have a lot to gain from increased focus on student achievements it is also apparent that high stakes test does have major implications. Crucially, with regards to high stakes testing more direct and concrete information is needed to show that students are applying factual information and transferring their knowledge, skills and ideas into a product, a utility or a performance. However, high stakes test are geared towards improving students and enhance the accountability that the planners are desperately seeking and provide the equity and respect that each and every child is entitled to in the school system. Then it might be just possible that every child would get a chance to shine.
BACKGROUND TO HIGH STAKES TESTING IN TRINIDAD AND TOBAGO
In Trinidad and Tobago High Stakes Testing are done throughout our primary schools, secondary schools and tertiary institutions as these institutions have maintained a rigid fixation on examinations. Standardized tests are beneficial in that they are useful for comparing students nationwide since they are all required to study the same curriculum for the same exam. The Secondary Examination assessment is no different as it awards a child for further achievement in the academic field.
Secondary Entrance Assessment (SEA) Examination is a high stake test that is used in Trinidad and Tobago to facilitate the placement of students in Secondary Schools. The SEA comprises of three papers Creative Writing, Mathematics, and Language Arts with an allotted time frame for each subject and covers the national curriculum for Primary-level education with a focus on Standards three to five.
The Common Entrance was replaced with this introduction of the SEA examination high-stakes test to be used as one of the tools to drive the education system in the right direction. Planners would no doubt argue that there is good merit for the application of this high stake assessment. Also the SEA exams uses standard scores to utilize the variance in each paper and therefore allows the student's to maintained a standard when they are combined, thus ensuring fairness in the placement process. Placement in secondary schools continues to be on the basis of merit, choice of schools and gender. Only when student's choices of schools have been exhausted, will attempts be made to place students in schools closest to their homes.
In such a high stake test as the SEA exams the paper contains open-ended items for which students are required to construct their responses, rather than select them from a number of other alternatives. Open-ended items can elicit different correct responses from students, but the emphasis is on revealing students' thinking. This high stake test gives room for creative and critical thinking allowing students to develop their skills. Students are required to show their knowledge of the mechanics of language and display their academic competencies.
While their exists certain rewards to the SEA high stakes test the amount of emphasis placed on learning through past papers, "booklets" and sample tests speaks to the unfortunate importance of the understanding the test format over the importance of understanding the actual material. Moreover, what makes a "good school" good is how well its students perform at the end of these tests. This places an enormous amount of pressure on the teachers to follow a narrow curriculum and focus on memorizing facts instead of developing more advanced abilities. For instance where a teacher would like to give her students a week to design an experiment to test the effect of global warming, the time factor before the S.E.A. exam simply does not permit her to do so. Instead of promoting fresh groundbreaking ideas, teachers are forced to confine themselves and students to walking the beaten path.
Another downside is that the education system is organized in such a way that if you have problems memorizing and regurgitating, you are branded as a person who is "not bright" and your path is set from as early as the S.E.A. examinations. Those doors are not open to you who have problems reciting information, because even if you somehow make it pass the first stage of S.E.A., you end up in the same situation at higher levels in a system that has the same learn-by-heart demands of its students. This culture of high stake tests in education has limited the capacity of our citizens to produce at an optimum level in our society because it has limited creativity of the teacher, of the student and of the resulting workforce.
Standardized testing also limits creativity of the teachers. Our nation's overuse of exams to assess student performance is having serious negative effects on teaching and learning. The tests have defined curriculum. The standardized testing of SEA exams simply assesses student's ability to store and reproduce names, dates and facts. What is important is that students memorize the formula and not that they understand it. This leads to a total lack of capacity for comprehending fundamental concepts and thinking in abstract terms. In addition, how the subject is tested has become how the subject is taught and what is not tested is not taught.
Students should not be asked to reproduce a year's work in a seventy minutes exam because this does not develop their critical thinking skills and analytical techniques. By enhancing creativity in the classroom, it will cultivate originality in thinking which will enable citizens to see things differently and employ new strategies and approaches to solving problems.
Education should be an active experience where students are constantly engaged and where a love for learning is developed, rather than a hatred for final exams. Luckily for us, Ras Shorty I did not have to pass a music exam in order to invent soca and it is a good thing that Brian Lara did not learn to play cricket through a cricket handbook with batting formulae. It is not the wholesale replication of novel-writing but the creative use of written language that makes VS Naipaul an acclaimed writer.
In conclusion high stakes test such as the SEA examination has its benefits and its negative impact. It is useful in setting standards across the schools, districts and country. Also it would be pivotal in building accountability into the system. Hence provide feedback so that adjustments and even restructuring could be applied to the system. However, particular attention to the curriculum and instructional techniques, modification of testing methods, more teacher encouragement and good observation are some of the other factors that will also encourage students to achieve higher grades.
After conducting an interview with a SEA exam teacher, Mr. Mehindra stated that most students sitting the S.E.A Examination are under intense anxiety as the syllabus had many areas to define. He stated that the SEA examination syllabus is quite regime and demands a lot from the students writing the exam. A major problem he stated was the time constraint that inhibits students from being creative as there is little or no time to experiment with information. Formulae, rules and grammatical structures are learnt and simply applied to questions.
While he found a high stake test such as the S.E.A. examination to be relevant and necessary as it standardizes testing of students who share similar learnt knowledge and ability as to what they have studied throughout their primary education. He stated that as a S.E.A. exam teacher such a high stake test is essential because it allows for students to be motivated and encourages an environment for competitive learning. He also mentioned that the skill of transfer is at the heart of learning and should not be left to conjecture. It must be officially encouraged and become deeply etched and structured into the curriculum in schools. In contrast he also claimed that the real achievers are always those who think outside of the box and who have put their knowledge and talents to creative use in the arts, business, sciences, humanities, sports and across disciplines and have well balanced and holistic development.
Most parents want what's best for their children. They want their children to become critical thinkers with the skills necessary for higher education and great success in life. As a parent of a child who sat the SEA exams recently she was much relieved that it was done and over with. She stated that using high stakes test to make decisions with important consequences for individual students can be intimidating. Her concerns were if the tests are being used correctly and fairly. She also stated that it was much work for her as it was for her child because she spent same amount of hours awake and was emotionally stressed out by the volume of worked needed to be covered by her child.
Also the memorization of all the various formulae and grammatical rules were quite overwhelming. She found that the SEA exam high stakes test promoted a narrow focus on getting the right answer and narrow the curriculum to whatever information is expected on the test. Thinking outside of the box is discouraged. Subject areas such as art, music, health and science got marginal attention.
Conversely she also expressed quite an interesting point by recognizing that high stakes test facilitates higher learning achievements. She also appreciated the fact that the SEA exam high stake test in particular also encourages an environment for competitive learning.
Student # 1
As a SEA exam student it proved to be quite challenging and tedious Cavita stated with a shy smile. She has recently completed the SEA examination and shared some of her recently fond memories. The effects of the high stake SEA exam did indeed take a toll on her. Her entire schedule had changed as she had increased her studying hours because the work got very demanding, which in turn reduced her extracurricular activities by nearly half. She also stressed of the range of adverse emotional reactions, of which she often felt depressed, worried, or embarrassed. Also at times she felt stupid and less proud of herself.
While there was the motivating factor of competitive learning she also stated that it was indeed a huge challenge. Cavita also mentioned that her parents were quite supportive and did indeed attend to her every need. Her mother would often stay up while she studied and if she was hungry made a quick snack for her to munch on. She did however agree that standardizing a high stakes test such as the SEA exams do have its benefits, as it allowed a similar setting of standards across the schools, districts and country. Furthermore she stated that it gave a sense of what to expect at secondary and tertiary level examinations.
Student # 2
Ravi is a creative child who is not very fond of exams. When questioned about the SEA exams he was a bit hesitant about the topic because he found the exam to be an extremely difficult task. He argued that it was too much work to learn in too little time. He stated that at times the focus on memorization of formulae and grammatical rules were quite overwhelming. Also he stated that teachers teach the syllabus and only what is in the curriculum and as such creative arts and science projects are sidelined in order to finish the demanding syllabus.
Next, he mentioned how tedious it used to be as teachers focus on so many test papers and past papers that at time he felt suffocated. His extracurricular activities were denied as he had too much work to focus on. However he also stated that he was a bit slower than others and often felt depressed and frustrated, hence, the need to try harder.
On the positive side he was appreciative to the fact that in such a high stake test as the SEA exam he can look forward to entrance into a secondary school, which in turn was his motivating factor.
Student # 3
Little inquisitive minds always think critically, as such is this pupil who recently wrote the high stakes SEA exam. She found the SEA examination to be a challenging vessel to greater achievement. She stated that it a mechanism that is used to motivate students and teachers alike. Student should want to perform well to feel a sense of accomplishment as passing this exam allows you to graduate and move on to a secondary education. Teachers should also feel accomplished when their time and effort is appreciated, not only by their students but parents as well.
She also pointed out that standardizing test such as the SEA examination will allow students a fair chance of equality as the same test is given to each child. She also did not forget to mention that a high stake test as the SEA exam will also assist in setting standards across the schools and country.
On the downside however, she stated that a lot of studying had to be done and as such her extracurricular activities were minimal. Also being creative was not an option as memorization of various formulae and grammatical rules was a key factor in passing the SEA exam.
THEMES DERIVED FROM ALL INTERVIEWS TAKEN
According to the World Wide Web, a theme "is a unifying idea that is a recurrent element in literary or artistic work," in a sentence, paragraph or essay. Many themes can be derived from the interviews taken as many responses were similarly based. While it s true that each person has given their valuable and honest contributions towards this assignment, it can be noted that many of us are of the same view when it comes to standardized testing, and to a large extent Secondary Entrance Assessment Examinations, and that it that it is time consuming with its overloaded syllabus, it encourages competitive learning, challenging, motivationally structured and it diminishes any extra time towards extra-curricular or other subject matters. As a teacher in the primary school, I am fully aware that the time table is shifted undoubtedly when a child escalates to the standard 5 class. Also, little or no time is given to extra-curricular activities as well as Creative Arts, Music, Science and Social Studies. It was also highlighted that there are too many formulae, rules and grammatical structures which are to be mastered in order to maintain and place high at its end.
In essence, high-stakes testing has its benefits and its disadvantages. High stakes test is aimed at creating better achieving students. High-stakes testing is designed to hold individual students accountable for their own test performance, unlike "system accountability," which is aimed at the providers of education, such as, school districts, and schools. However, this cannot be achieved if the system is stifling the creativity of the people. Memorizing a textbook is no replacement for innovative thinking. The creativity for progress that should have been cultivated in the classroom is lacking. Therefore failing to pass for a prestigious school at the S.E.A. examination does not define a person it simply puts you at a different level. Rather the question is how best to use high-stakes testing.
Furthermore, sufficient resources must be provided for professional development of teachers in the use of tests and remediation of students who initially fails. Policymakers must not lose sight that the ultimate goal of a comprehensive accountability system is not to reward or punish, but to improve the delivery of curricula and increase student learning. Some balance could be brought to bear on the overdose of these pen-and-paper tests if schools become committed to a yearly exposition of children's work highlighting, among others, their achievements in sports, the visual and performing arts, and the school's outreach community programme, to be viewed publicly by school officials, core stakeholders and other service providers. It provides indirect evidence that students are demonstrating understanding of their knowledge in context.
Therefore it is of my opinion that a high stake test does not define an individual but assist a student into becoming a more successful and achieving person. In Trinidad and Tobago we must realize that the result of the education system which revolves around high stakes examinations is not always the most achieving method but a mechanism used to help facilitate higher achievement.