High-stakes testing

What is High-Stakes Testing?

High-stakes testing is the practice of using student scores on standardized exams to inform major education decisions, such as student promotion, middle and high school admissions, graduation, hiring and firing of teachers and school closings.

What’s Wrong with High-Stakes Testing?

  • When students, teachers and schools are rewarded for high test scores and punished for low ones, the tests themselves become the focus of education. More time is devoted to test prep which leaves less time for in-depth projects and other more stimulating and enriching activities.
  • The annual state exams for 3rd – 8th graders test only two subjects: English Language Arts (ELA) and math, which has crowded out social studies, music, art, world languages, physical education and even science.
  • Teachers don’t get the test results until the end of the school year and they don’t receive specific information about what students got right or wrong, so the tests don’t help teachers help their students.
  • The tests themselves are poorly written, confusing and seem designed to trick students. Sometimes teachers don’t agree on what the right answers are! The tests don’t measure critical thinking.
  • One-size-fits-all standardized tests disadvantage students who are already vulnerable, such as English-language Learners, children with special needs, students of color and low-income students.
  • In NYC, our children can be held back on the basis of poor test scores even if their grades and classroom work demonstrate their readiness to be promoted.
  • Excessive test prep, along with the pressure and anxiety created by high stakes, can destroy curiosity, creativity and children’s love of learning.

What’s the Alternative?

  • Assessment should be individualized, rely on multiple measures and be developed by well-trained, experienced educators.
  • Good teachers use a variety of sources to assess a child’s progress, including classwork, homework, projects, performance tasks and tests. Using different methods allows teachers to assess a wide range of skills and different types of knowledge.
  • Tests should be used as a feedback mechanism to help teachers understand the strengths and weaknesses of each student and to adjust their instructional practices. Teachers  have firsthand knowledge of the backgrounds and abilities of their students and can tailor their assessment practices to ensure they are developmentally and cultural appropriate.
  • Standardized test scores are an imperfect measure of teacher quality. Research shows they are notoriously unreliable; they also disadvantage teachers with the most challenging students. Administrators should use multiple sources to determine whether teachers are doing a good job at any given school.
  • Although standardized tests can play a useful role in education, they need to be detached from high-stakes consequences. High stakes, particularly punitive ones, distort the learning environment and can be demoralizing for students and teachers.
  • More specific information about alternatives to high-stakes testing is available here.

Fact Sheets

The Truth About High-Stakes Testing in NYC Public Schools (English)
The Truth About High-Stakes Testing in NYC Public Schools (Spanish)
Transparency & Truth-in-Testing