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Volume 16, Number 5
September/October 2000

Are High-Stakes Tests Worth the Wager?

Amid reports of test-score gains, researchers ask some tough questions about the consequences for Latino and African American students.


Choose the best answer to complete the following sentence: Standardized tests that are linked to graduation, promotion, and other high-stakes outcomes are . . .

a) a good idea because they create incentives for students, teachers, and schools to meet high achievement standards.
b) a good idea because they help to ensure that all students will graduate with at least a basic foundation of academic skills.
c) a bad idea because they stigmatize students who do poorly and ex acerbate educational inequities along socio economic, racial, and ethnic lines.
d) a bad idea because they encourage a curriculum driven by fact memorization and test-taking "tricks" instead of critical thinking and other higher-order skills.

Poll the staff of any elementary, middle, or high school and you will probably get the full range of responses to this question in equal numbers. Similarly, education researchers are far from reaching a consensus about whether testing students for high-stakes outcomes actually improves learning. While some researchers seem to focus primarily on the potential and others on the pitfalls, many seem to agree that some key questions are not being asked in the current rush toward high-stakes testing. According to the latest figures released by the Education Commission of the States, a bipartisan policy group, 24 states now require students to pass exit tests before they receive their high school diplomas, and this number continues to grow as additional states phase in such requirements.

This is an excerpt from the Harvard Education Letter. Subscribers can click here to continue reading this article.


For Further Information

For Further Information

M. Clarke, W. Haney, and G. Madaus. "High Stakes Testing and High School Completion." Boston: Boston College, National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy, January 2000.

R.F. Elmore and R. Rothman, eds. Testing, Teaching, and Learning: A Guide for States and School Districts. Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1999.

J.P. Heubert and R.M. Hauser, eds. High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation. Washington, DC: National Research Council, 1999.

L.M. McNeil. "Creating New Inequalities: Contradictions of Reform." Phi Delta Kappan 81, no. 10 (June 2000): 729-734.

G. Natriello and A.M. Pallas. "The Development and Impact of High-Stakes Testing." Paper presented at High Stakes K-12 Testing Conference sponsored by The Civil Rights Project, Harvard University, December 1998. Revised November 1999.

M. Neill et al. Testing Our Children: A Report Card on State Assessment Systems. Cambridge, MA: FairTest, 1997.

M. Roderick, A.S. Bryk, B.A. Jacob, J.Q. Easton, and E. Allensworth. "Ending Social Promotion: Results from the First Two Years." Consortium on Chicago School Research, December 1999.

U.S. Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. "The Use of Tests When Making High-Stakes Decisions for Students: A Resource Guide for Educators and Policymakers" (draft). July 6, 2000.