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Testing School cultures dominated by high-stakes tests are creating more and more reluctant learners. Sharon L. Nichols and David C. Berliner


ince the passage of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), students have been exposed to an unprecedented numberof tests. EvetA year in grades 3-8 and at least once in high school, \irtually all public school students take tests in math and reading (and soon science). Students also take regular benchmark tests—supposedly to predict performance on the mandated tests—and district assessments throughout the school year. The time spent talking about, preparing for, and taking tests has increased exponentially. What bas all this testing achieved? Five years after NCLB v^'as enacted, tbere is no convincing evidence that student learning has increased in any significant way on tests otber than the slates' ovm tests. On measures sucb as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), no reliable increases in scores have occurred, nor bave acblevement gaps between students of higher and lower socioeconomic classes narrowed. •^^ In contrast, a wealth of documentadon indicates that tbe unintended and largely negative effects of bigh-stakes testing are pervasive and a cause for concern {see Jones, Jones, & Hargrove, 2003; Orfield & Komhaber, 2001). Tn our own research, we have documented


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hundreds of cases in which bigh-stakes testing bas banned teaching and learning (Nicbols & Berliner, 2007). For example, high-stakes testing bas been associated witb suspicious forms of data manipulation, as well as outright cheating. Tbe tests undermine teacherstudent relalionsbips, lead to a narrowing of tbe curriculum, demoralize teacbers, and bore students. Research bas not fully examined tbe impact of tbis testdominated scbool environment on students' attitudes and dispositions toward learning. But we suspect ibat for most students, scbooling is less joyful ihan it was; and for reluctant learners, schooling is worse than ever.

Overvaluing Testing, Undervaluing Learning From the mouvation luerature, we know tbat learners are more likely to enjoy learning when activities are meaningful, fun, or interesting. Yet, again and again, higb-stakes testing dlminisbcs the


Out of Learning We also know ihat students are more hardworking and persistent when they perceive the purpose of learning as self-improvement or achievement of personal goals. Yet a higb-stakes lesiing climate sends a message that the primary purpose of learning is to score well on the test. Sometimes leaching to the test is blatanl, as when teachers assign daily worksheets taken from released older versions of the test. Sometimes it is less obvious, as when instruction is based on the specific information that will be on the test. One teacher explains, I'm leaching more tesl-taking skills and how to use your time wisely Also what to look for in a piece of literature and how to underline important details, rhere is a lot more ume spent on teaching those kinds of skills. . . . Read quesiions, restate the question in your answer, write so the person grading the test can read it, etc. (Taylor et al., 2003, p. 39)

The time spent talking about, preparing for, and taking tests has increased exponentially. Fun and meaning of learning. Under pressure to prepare students lo perform well in math and reading, teachers engage in repetitious instruction that boils down content lo isolated bits of information, leaving little time to engage in creative inierdisciplinary activities or project-based inquiry. One Colorado teacher reports.

Our district told us to focus on reading, writing, and mathematics. . . . In the past I had hatched out baby chicks in the classroom as part ol ihe science unii. 1 don't have time to do thai. . . . We don't do community outreach like we used to, like visiting the nursing home or cleaning up the park that we had adopted. (Taylor, Shepard, Ktnncr, & Rosenthal, 2ai3, p. 51)

As a result of the overvaluing of test results, the curriculum has narrowed. All across the United States, tbe time devoted to untested subjects like art, music, and social studies has been reduced or eliminated completely so that schools can teach more math, reading, writing, and now science. For example, in Kansas in 2006, high school freshmen were required to "double dose" their English classes instead of participating in electives. In a California middle school, students were required to take two periods of all core subjects and funding was dropped for music, Spanish, art, and classes in the trades and industrial design (Zastrow & Jane, 2006).




In 2006, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released a report on the reasons students drop out of scbool (Bridgeland, Dilulio, & Morison, 2006). In tbis small survey of students who bad already dropped out, 47 percent reported that school was "uninteresting." About 70 percent commented tbat tbey didn't feel "mspired" at scbool. For such reluctant learners, the increased test preparation and narrower curriculum resulting from bigh-stakes testing exacerbates tbe problem. Faced witb an increasingly disjointed, decontextualized curriculum, many become actively disengaged; otbers simply leave.

before test time, the principal brings students together to sing songs ibat will "inspire" tbem before and during the test. Some songs included "I'm a Believer" and "I've Been Working on My Writing" (Toy, 2006). Bulletin boards, posters, and daily mantras constitute additional forms of explicit empbasis on tbe importance of tests. Clicbed slogans often appear on posters and banners tbrougbout the scbool. Messages like 'Take Us to Exemplary" are pervasive in many Texas scbools. Wben teachers report that most of their time is spent preparing for tbe test.

bigbly as tbeir better-performing peers. Sadly some teacbers and principals bave done all sorts of unprofessional things to ensure that test-score suppressors either pass (because of rigorous test-prep activities or even more questionable tneans) or are dropped from testing altogether. For example, more than 500 low-scoring students in Binningham, Alabama, were administratively "dropped" from school just days before state testing (Orel, 2003). Scores rose, principals received substantial bonuses, and bundrcds of students bad tbeir lives made infinitely more difficult in the process. Sucb actions belp to transform slow learners

Chronic failure is demeaning, causing many otherwise highly engaged students to give up, drop out, or become increasingly cynical about schooling. I Pledge Allegiance to theTest A disturbing phenomenon popping up in more and more U.S. schools is tbe prevalence of scboolwide pep rallies, ice cream socials, and other peculiar events meant to "motivate" students to do well on tbe state-mandated test. For example, one Texas high scbooi held a rally for parents, teachers, and students during which tbe principal informed parents of tbe importance of the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) and compared it to a marathon, in which "students need endurance." He was not subtle wben be said, "This is tbe test of your lives!" This speech was followed by a class pledge in which students promised to "pass tbe test and take Parker High School to the top and lead us to exemplary" (Foster, 2006). This is not an isolated incident. In one New York scbool, every spring just 16


when we go into scboois and find bundreds of posters related to tbe upcoming test, when we bear of scbools witb daily announcements about the "test standard of the day," and wben students tell us tbat not a day goes by v-ithout mention of the test, we can be preity sure tbat the test bas become tbe primary focus for learning.

Marginalizing Youth High-stakes tesung encourages teacbers to view students not in terms of their potential, or wbat unique or new qualities they bring to the learning environment, but ratber as test-score increasers or suppressors. Students quickly pick tbis up and realize tbey are defined as winners or losers on the basis of their test scores. Test-score suppressors receive the clear message ibat tbey are not valued as


into reluctant learners, compounding their problems in school. Issues associated witb test score suppressors are exacerbated in states where bigb scbool students bave to pass a test to receive a diploma. Hundreds of students are dropping out or opting to take tbe GED route, mainly because passing the test has become an insurmountable obstacle to tbem. Tbis is especially true for special education students and Englisb language leamers (ELLs). Tbousands try as bard as they can but cannot pass the test despite meeting all other graduation requirements. Chronic failure is demeaning, causing many otberwise bigbly engaged students to give up, drop out, or become increasingly cynical about scbooting. Tbe bigh-stakes testing culture communicates to students tbat tbeir other abilities are of no value. Outstanding talent

in dance, welding, art, knowledge of the U.S. Civil War, computer programming, consensus building in small groups, foreign languages, acting, and so forth count for little. Even students who score high may become less motivated as a result of the high-stakes testing culture. These testscore increasers often feel "ustid"—for example, when they are pressured to take the test even when they are sick. As a resull, they may adopt cynical attitudes about the purpose of being in school. As one student points out, The TAKS is a big joke.. . . This is the easiest test you could ever lake. . . . I m e a n , forget logarithms and algebra. Forget knowing about government and the Bill of Rights. Instead, we read a two-page story and then answer 11 short questions about it such as, "What was the meaning of the wordjudie in paragraph two? A: generous, B; deceptive, C: useless, and D: applesauce." ("Teen Talk," 2007)

Learners Weigh In ^A'hc^ many studeiiis see education as punitive and uninteresting, and when they have their abilities narrowly defined by a single test score, the potential for irreparable and damaging consequences is high. For students who struggle academically, htgh-stakes testing can diminish their sense of sell worth, leading to decreased motivation to do well in school. And for students who see tbe tests as an easy rite of passage, a school culture formed around highstakes testing is boring and unconnected. Thus, high-stakes testing cultures build reluctant learners out of even these academically talented students. How do we know ibis? Tbe voices of youth are pretty clear. They understand ihe exaggerated importance cf tests in ibeir lives, and it frustrates them, A 12th writes. Students (teachers as well) focus on only the TAKS. Its almost as if they have been given an ultimaium: Either pÂŁ.ss the lest and get the ticket out of there, or pass the

test months later and live with the disappointment all your life. Its not fair. ("Teen Talk." 2007) Others find tbe tests debumanizing and feel angry about the narrow curriculum being forced on them. They worr)' that tbeir schooling ignores other aspects of ibeir lives. An 1 lib grade student writes, In Texas many public school dislricts bave found raising their standardized testing averages to be tbe No, 1 goal of classroom curriculum. Consequently, school is no longer a forum where students can discuss the effects of alcohol, or tbe best method to achieve a life filled with value and pleasure, or the simple antics of their daily life. ("Teen Talk," 2007) The pressure to achieve is highest in high-poverty schools because they are most likely to be shut down or reconsolidaied under NCLB. There, the score suppressors are often force-fed a daily curriculum that includes bits of information devoid of any connection to tbeir real iives, Foster (2006), talking wilb Latino students attending a high-poverty high school heard, "We learn in isolation. We leam one skill one day or in a week and then we never see it again

until test time." (p. 143), Another Latino student in the same school commented, 1 was written up and sent to the office because 1 didn't wani to do a TAKS assignment, I was told in ibe oflice tbat I had to do it because it was important that 1 pass this test. 1 atn tired of doing TAKS, TAKS, TAKS. I am not learning anything, (Foster, 2006, p. 144) Especially revealing are the following excerpts from a transcript of one teachers attempt to motivate her 16 Latino 11th graders. Tbe teacher bad just handed out an essay similar to those tbat would be on tbe upcoming state test. Her goal was to motivate and inspire students to perform well on tbe Lest. But students were savvy about what was happening, OK, this is last-minute work for TAKS. You can pass the test. You don't want to take it again, right? TEACHER:


Please say yes.

STUDENTS: NO response.

are brilliant The test is not hard. Take your time; in fact take all the time you need. TEACHER: YOU



STUDENTS: NO respome.

TEACHER: OK, there will bt- three types of open-ended questions and three types of literary seleciions. What does "literary" mean? STUDENTS: NO response.

TEACHER: IS it fiction, nonfiction, or biography? S'lTJDENTS: No response. TEACHER: Are you going to talk to me or you don't know?

A high-stakes testing climate sends a message that the primary purpose of learning is to score well on the test.

STLIDENTS: Nti response.

TEACHER: (in an angry voice) It's fiction, you all. (puH.sf) First thing you do is answer tbe question. It must be insightful and thoughtful. Do not restate the question. You have five lines to fill in. Then you have to support a response. If you summarize in an open-ended question you get a zero. But if you use suppon for the passage, you get points- Look at this essay. Do you see how this student used textual suppon? STUDENTS: NO response.

TEACHER: (in an angry voice) Come on! STUDENTS: NO response. (Foster, 2006, pp, 155-158)

And on it goes. Another exciting day at scbool marked only by passive resistance to what students accurately perceive to be an inferior (and boring) education. What Can We Do? High-stakes tests are not likely to go away, but schools can and should try to minimize their harmtul eifects. Schools should at least refrain from engaging tn test-prep rallies, ice cream socials, or social events that focus specifically on tbe test. Sucb activities only reinforce the impression that the test is tbe primary goal of schooling. If schools want to bold such events to create a sense of community, tbey might simply rename the events to emphasize learning, not testing (for example, a Rally for Learning). Of course, tbe learning celebrated has to be genuine: completing outstanding science fair projects;


presenting classroom projects to tbe town council; writing poetry, essays, or a play; and so fortb. Schools need lo reward demonstrations of learning in all its varieties. Aditiinistrators and teachers should work together to reframe the purposes of learning in their school. As a start, elitTiinate tbe word "test" from any banner, poster, or encouraging slogan. Instead, use language tbat focuses on mastering knowledge, improving indi\idual performance, or seeing tbe value of schooling for enhancing one's future. In addition, teachers and administrators should strive to create a climate of caring and cooperation, instead of competition. We know that students are more likely to attend scbool and excel when they feel they belong. Feelings of connection lead to greater effort, greater persistence, and positive attitudes. Feelings of rejection bave tbe opposite effects. Significant changes in NCLB are unlikely to occur soon. This law bas not only exacerbated the problems of reluctant learners already in our schools, but also manufactured additional reluctant leamcrs for tbe schools to deal vvith. It is up to administrators and teachers to mitigate the damaging effects of this untenable law on many of our students by proactively working to diminish the importance of bigb-stakes testing in schools. 10

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References Bridgeland,J. M,, Dilulio,J. j . , &r Morison, K. B. (2006). The silent epidemic Perspeclives oj iiigli school dropouts. Wasbington, DC: Civic Enterprises. Available: www , lent epidemic3-06.pdl Foster, S. L. (2006). How iMtino slLidenis negotiate the demands oj high-stakes lesling: A case study of one school in Texas. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Arizona State University, Tempe. Jones, M. C , Jones, B., & Hargrove, T. (2003). The unintended consequences of high-stakes testing, bmbain. MD: Rowman and Littlefield, Nichols, S, L, & Berliner, D. C. (2007). Collateral damage: How high-stakes testing conupis America's schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Fducation Press. Orel, S. (2003). Left behind in Birmingbam: 522 pushed-out students. In R. C. Lent (Si G. Pipkin, (lids.), Siknt no more: Voices of courage in American schools (pp. 1-14). Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann. Orfield, G., & Kornhaber. M. L. (Eds.), (2001), Raising standards or raising harners? Inequalily and high stakes testing in public education. New York: Century Foundation Press. Teen taik: Tackling TAKS. (2007, Marcb 9), San Anlonio Bxpress-Ncws, pp. Fl, 5. Available: www.mysanantonio.conVsalife /ieenteam/stories/MYSA030907.01RTAKS. llxllOchtml Taylor. G., Shepard, L., Kinner, E, 6? Rosenthal, J. (2003), A survey of teachers' perspectives an high-slakes testing in Colorado: WIitK gets taught, what gets lost (CSF Technical Report 588). Los Angeles: University of Calilomia. Toy, V (2006, January 1). Elmontfe scbool success is a lesson to others. New York Times, Sec. 14LI. p. 1. Zastrow, C , &Janc, H. (2006). The condition of the liberal arts in America's pubhc schools: A report to the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Washington, DC: Council lor Basic Education.

Sharon L. Nichols is Assistant Professor, College of Education and Human Development, tjniversity of Texas at San Antonio; David C. Berliner is Regents Professor, Mary Lou Fulton College of Education, Arizona State University, Tempe;,

Testing the Joy Out of Learning  

Educational article on how high stakes testing is squeezing the enjoyment out of learning.

Testing the Joy Out of Learning  

Educational article on how high stakes testing is squeezing the enjoyment out of learning.