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[Educator Network] Are we having the right conversation about high stakes tests?

[Educator Network] Are we having the right conversation about high stakes tests?

For years there has been an ongoing debate on the perceived value of high stakes testing (well, testing in general) and the closing of the physical classroom has provided the opportunity to evaluate these with a more critical eye. Formative, benchmark, summative, cumulative, high-stakes assessment, oh my! How we use the data from these assessments may have diverted us from understanding a student’s learning into waters that they were not originally designed. How should we start the conversation, what needs to be considered and why should we be evaluating the evaluations?


Standards and benchmark testing help educators revitalize both teaching and understand what needs to be taught. While there is a tendency to tie a negative connotation to test taking, it's often essential to ensure that students are where they need to be. Testing can be complex, but there is value in that, especially when the data is used to inform. Data can be used to introduce objectivity.

Benchmarking data allows us to measure academic growth and create personalized curriculum to reach each student's learning needs. Benchmarks ultimately allow students in the same cohort to reach the standards set out by the state or the school district. Without these measuring sticks, students may not be ready to move onto new content in the next grade level.

The goal of formative assessment is to help teachers determine any gaps in student knowledge and areas where they can improve, it allows teachers insight into the learning and the opportunity to alter their lessons accordingly.

Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning, at the conclusion of a defined instructional period—like the end of a project, unit, course, semester, program, or school year. Summative are typically evaluative, rather than diagnostic.

While formative assessment is the evaluation of learning as it takes place it is ongoing, summative assessment is the practice of evaluating what a student has learned at the end of a given period. Educators use these to evaluate how well the information has been absorbed and retained—this is where summative assessment becomes useful. By assessing students at the end of a module, course, or even entire program curriculum, summative assessment provides faculty insight into how well their students have mastered the delivered content.

However, in the recent past, many states have changed teacher-evaluation policies and systems to include student test scores as a “significant” indicator in evaluation. This means that student test results have developed additional weights. No longer being a measuring stick of just student learning but a potential factor in teacher evaluation, potentially influencing decisions related to compensation, tenure, hiring, and firing. The testing took on an entirely different purpose. (But let’s hold that conversation for a minute). The benefits of high stakes testing have been argued and enjoyed.

Benefits like:

  • Holding teachers accountable with a measurable score of their instruction.
  • Provides students with a tangible purpose to learning, possibly motivating them to work harder, learn more, and take the tests more seriously.
  • Establishing and consistent the expectations for both students and teachers regardless of their instructional landscape.
  • Identify areas of development and improvement for schools and students.
  • Coherent data for evaluation of schools and student performance that parents, communities, and policy makers can use to inform decisions and strategies/funding for improvement.
  • Allows for a gut check on learning.


What is different, and why they might not work this year

Back in March 2020, when Ohio became one of the first states to close schools and transition to online learning, it was thought that this emergency teaching would be temporary. The idea that the U.S. Department of Education would allow a pause in high-stakes testing was not even a consideration. However, someone was thinking about this. In March, the DOE granted waivers to all 50 states, reasoning that it would be unfair to hold schools accountable for the results of one test in a year with so much uncertainty and inequity.

Last spring, Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine (R) was quoted in the Washington Post addressing the cancelling of state wide tests “the world will not come to an end” if the federally mandated tests weren’t given. This was a breakthrough because for years federal and state policymakers had acted as if it would. Soon after, other governors followed suit. On June 18, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) made it clear he doesn’t think missing two years of standardized testing is a big problem, either. Things were changing. One significant side effect of the COVID-19 pandemic and schools disruption began a reevaluation of the expected testing, and in late May 2019, the Ohio House of Representatives passed legislation to reduce standardized testing in schools. A crack in the assessment walls.

But as the new school year began— again, in an environment of ambiguity and distraction — some states ignored the cracks. Texas is vowing to resume high-stakes testing. This decision was not well received by everyone. Texas PTA President, Suzi Kennon authored an open letter to Gov. Greg Abbott declaring, "State assessments have no place in the 2020-21 school year. [States] cannot expect our schools to go back to 'business as usual.' Now is the time for the state to put the needs of millions of students above data numbers and protocol."

With classroom instruction looking so very different this year, we need to really think through our testing. When student engagement is at a premium, why would we want to sabotage the momentum? This brings us back to the engagement concern and time spent teaching to the test rather than the child.

Alternatives to Benchmarks

How do we take what is good and use it while re-evaluating the entire assessment industry in school districts? How do we use the data effectively, and stay away from the negative side effects of high stakes exams?

While educators and schools have been using summative assessments in various forms since the invention of schools and teaching, summative assessments have morphed in recent years to become components of larger school-improvement efforts. Just as they always have, summative assessments are there to help teachers determine whether students are making progress or meeting expected learning standards. Yet there is this force building with renewed calls to exam the summative tests and replace with formative measures. Using these instruction driving assessments to extract data for accountability purposes. Why separate the high stakes and summative assessments from the ongoing formative assessments where the data is immediately useable?

Teachers can also imagine and use more creative methods of checking knowledge and mastery. Alternative assessments, also referred to as performance tests or authentic assessments, are used to determine what students can and cannot do, in contrast to what they do or do not know. Activities that teachers have been using for years to engage students and enjoy the process. Teachers can use the games, activities, and projects are used to determine whether students have learned what they were expected to learn.

What are some other ways to ditch the state-wide heavy-duty summative assessments?

  • Sampling. Rather than test the entire student population every year, sampling tests a statistically representative group of students. No, this doesn’t get rid of the high-stakes exams, it is a gentle step.

  • Assessment that don’t feel like assessments. Moving from the stressful exams to game based or the such moves the scary bubble pages into the tapestry of the gaming environment. According to a report from the MacArthur Foundation, “Stealth assessment refers to Early Childhood Development (ECD)-based assessments that are woven directly and invisibly into the fabric of the gaming environment.” Why not move away from the costs, anxiety and time of the high stakes assessment and focus on what a student can do?

  • Multiple measures. Stop looking at one moment in time and integrate assessments and collect different information. This option involves a wide range of alternatives. Review Portfolio-based assessments which measure student progress based on projects, presentations, reports, and papers collected over time. The Gallup Student Poll, measures hope, engagement, and well-being and research shows these are indicators of success, linked to grades, retention, and employment. Consider what is important and evaluate that.

Although there are no easy answers to questions about how we safeguard our understanding of students’ knowledge. Or how we have enough accurate data to hold our school systems accountable both now in a time of extraordinary interruption, we would be prudent to remember that accountability-oriented testing and ongoing, instructional assessment are very different activities, and we should keep these distinct things separate.

winnie.oleary's picture
Winnie O'Leary

Winnie O’Leary has spent over 25 years in education, as a classroom teacher, school board member, a family advocate, special education teacher, curriculum writer and currently the Educator Initiatives Manager. Her experiences have allowed her to work with districts all over the country where she learns something new and exciting every day.