Op/Ed: Does high-stakes testing improve education?

By Michael T. Rock, Director, Unionville-Chadds Ford Board of Education


Michael T. Rock

As the debate on No Child Left Behind and the Common Core heat up and as Pennsylvania’s school districts gear up for implementation of the Keystone exit exams it is time to take stock of what we know about the impact of high stakes testing. Supporters see tests as a way to close the gap in performance between American students and their counterparts in other industrialized countries, better prepare students for the 21st century, and improve the performance of poor performing schools. Detractors decry a narrowing of the curriculum, time spent teaching to the test, and a focus on the wrong issue. The former urge staying the course the latter encourage students to opt out.

What’s so distressing about the public debate is how detached it is from a large body of rigorous empirical research on the impact of high stakes testing. That research yields substantial evidence on the impact of testing on student achievement; on the persistent gap between American student test scores in math and reading and those of our major competitors; on graduation and dropout rates; and on SAT scores, college admission, college persistence, and labor market outcomes.  While the literature on this topic is large and unwieldy, readers can get an excellent introduction to it by consulting Dee and Jacob (Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 2010 and Holmes et al (Review of Educational Research 2010).

The impact of NCLB on student achievement has been mixed at best. Simple trend data suggest that NCLB probably increased fourth grade math scores, particularly for minority students and students from low income families. There is little evidence of trend improvement in reading. More rigorous statistical studies confirm that the benefits of NCLB are limited to fourth grade math scores.

A similar story characterizes the impact of NCLB on the gap between U.S. student scores on standardized international math and science (TIMSS) and reading (PIRLS) tests and those of our major competitors. While there is some evidence that the gap is closing in math, the gain is quite modest (1.35% over pre-NCLB test scores).  There is no evidence that NCLB improved reading scores.

There is very little evidence that exit exams improve student achievement. This carries over to student performance on standardized international tests. But there is a clear and convincing downside to these tests. They increase dropout rates, delay graduation, and increase rates of GED attainment, particularly for non-whites and those who live in high poverty areas.

The findings on the impact of exit exams on SAT scores, college enrollment, college completion, employment and earnings are equally bleak. With one exception (students who fail to receive a diploma because they failed the exit exam have lower college enrollment rates) there is no consistent association between exit exams or the rigor of those exams and student SAT scores, college enrollment, college completion, employment, or earnings. There is also not much evidence to suggest that employers attach any significance to high school diplomas earned in schools with exit exams.

Why has testing produced such meager results? One answer is that it places too much of a burden on testing while ignoring a broader literature on how the world’s best performing schools come out on top (http://mckinseyonsociety.com/how-the-worlds-best-performing-schools-come-out-on-top/).

Michael T. Rock is a Unionville Chadds-Ford School District School Board Director and Samuel and Etta Wexler Professor of Economic History at Bryn Mawr College.

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  1. Barb says:

    REVERSE18 hours ago
    Christie: Common Core ‘Not Working’
    Though he once supported Common Core, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has declared that the education standards are “simply not working” and proposed dropping them.


  2. Anonymous says:

    Lower Merion School District just passed a resolution regarding standardized testing.

    • Helen says:

      The people in this district understand exactly what is happening. Working through our legislators is the only way to begin to reduce the amount of testing. I am attempting to get information as to exactly how much the PSSA testing costs the State of Pennsylvania.

      • Barb says:


        Go to:http://www.senatordinniman.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/11/EightReasonsAgainstKeystones.pdf

        See number 2.) which states

        8 Reasons Why We Oppose the Keystone Graduation Exams
        By State Senator Andrew E. Dinniman, D.Ed.
        Minority Chair, Senate Education Committee

        It is foolhardy to spend more than $65 million a year on testing while more and more of our school districts teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, despite school property taxes being at an all time high. In Philadelphia, for example, schools face class sizes of nearly 50 students, have been forced to close their libraries and even struggle to afford textbooks and basic instructional materials.

        So Mr. Dinniman says its over $65M. Wow!

    • Sandy Beach says:

      I am so happy to see that Lower Merion School District is demonstrating some common sense about this topic. Good for them and for WCASD, too!

      • TE Res says:

        From T/ESD


        Keystone Exam Resolutions

        Resolution Supporting House Bill 168 – Eliminating Keystone Exams as a Graduation Requirement – February 2015

        Resolution Opposing Keystone Exams as Graduation Requirements – June 2014

        Resolution Opposing Keystone Exams – March 2014

        Resolution Opposing Changes to Chapter 4 Graduation Requirements – October 2012

        Resolution Opposing Proposed High School Keystone Exams – April 2009

        Resolution Opposing Proposed High School Graduation Competency Assessments – March 2008

  3. Helen says:

    Dr. Rock,
    Thank you for the time you took to do this research. I will be reading the link you give in your last paragraph. We need to base our decisions on facts based on research and you have given us this information.

    Also, Dr. Scanlon of WCASD is to be congratulated for taking a stand for the students in his district. We need more leaders like Dr. Rock and Dr. Scanlon.

    I would like to pose this question. Exactly how much does the PSSA testing cost the State of Pennsylvania. This information must be available somewhere and I believe that each and every taxpayer is entitled to see the total figure given to testing in this state–the TOTAL AMOUNT OF MONEY spent for the entire state.

  4. Steve says:

    This was posted on a few peoples pages on FB…an email that parents of the West Chester School district received…

    From Dr. James Scanlon, superintendent of West Chester, PA school district. This was an email sent to all parents in the district:

    May 22, 2015

    Dear Parents,

    Many of us are quick to fault the U.S. public education system, comparing it to other small European countries, and finding deficits and gaps. The system, and the way it’s funded, are far from perfect. However we manage to educate generations of children who go on to do incredible things.

    Now we are asking our students to do something that’s entirely unfair: To spend weeks and weeks filling in bubbles, taking standardized tests and having their entire educational ambition directed toward passing them. This is not what public education was intended to do, nor should do.

    As the superintendent of the West Chester Area School District, I believe in very high standards for our students. I believe in accountability. I do believe that tests can be a good thing. But not the way we are being forced, by the government, to give them. We officially began the PSSA testing window on April 13 and we will continue to test through May 27 when we finish with the high school Keystone Exams, a new graduation requirement. Beginning with the class of 2017, even a straight ‘A’ student who doesn’t do well on these tests won’t receive a diploma, under state law.

    State and federally mandated testing has been around for a long time and is certainly here to stay. But it’s become a massive burden that is stifling creativity and love of teaching and learning.

    West Chester has consistently ranked in the top 10 percent among school districts in the state with testing data. In 2012 a new set of rules said we need to calculate how well our schools are doing using a system called School Performance Profiles (SPP). This system requires a new set of metrics but also includes a teacher/principal evaluation model tied to student achievement on state tests. Our district SPP ranks fifth among 500 school districts in PA.

    While our district has embraced high standards and accountability, we now spend the first seven months of the school year preparing to take three standardized tests, then we spend approximately six weeks giving tests to students. Unlike private and parochial schools, public schools are mandated to use these tests to determine graduation for students, and for teacher and administrator evaluations. It is positively stressing us – and our system – to the max.

    Our teachers, students, and parents all say the extreme amount of time focused on testing is causing ridiculous amounts of stress in the classroom, faculty room, and at home. The angst is palpable as you walk through our hallways. Where is there time for creativity in teaching? Where is there time for exploration and collaboration? Our talented staff do their very best to find ways to incorporate what needs to be tested into their dynamic lesson plans, but it’s difficult given the time constraints and enormous amount of material being covered.

    Ultimately that negativity is going to drive down our test scores. Learning should be challenging, but also enjoyable and exciting. Teaching should be dynamic and creative. We’re missing so much of that because of these tests. I am not advocating a system without any kind of testing, rigor, or accountability, but what we’re doing right now isn’t working. There is a better way and it starts with local school districts making decisions about graduation requirements and how to measure student progress toward the Pa State Standards.

    I have been gathering stories to share with our legislators about how these tests are negatively impacting our kids, parents, and staff. I have continued to tell our lawmakers that change is sorely needed.

    Teachers have literally sent me hundreds of examples of how students are worried, anxious, and depressed. The rules for taking these exams are crazy, as well. Every bulletin board has to be covered so kids can’t make a reference to anything for help. Springtime in a school should be full of excitement and learning. Not anymore. The last three weeks our schools have looked more like prisons than educational institutions. The rules allow students to take as much time as they need but once they close the booklet, the session is over and they can’t return to it. There is no research to support that any of these test environments are helpful, supportive, or represent good pedagogy.

    I hope you will join me in advocating for change. Tell your legislators how you feel about the high stakes testing that is dominating our schools.

    We live in an outstanding community, supportive of its public schools. Through all of this, our teachers – and all of our staff members – have not lost sight of the positive impact they have on our students every day. I am grateful to them for that, and hope you will join me in thanking them.

    Jim Scanlon
    Superintendent, West Chester Area School District

  5. Bennett Baird says:

    Dr. Rock, thank you for this perspective. We are indeed fortunate to have people like you on our School Board who care so much for our students and quality public education.

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