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Appropriate Use of High-Stakes Tests

Jay Heubert, associate professor of education at Teachers College (and adjunct professor of law at Columbia Law School) recently directed a Congressionally mandated study, conducted by a committee of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), on the use of tests for student tracking, promotion, and graduation.

According to Heubert, such "high-stakes" tests are increasingly popular in the U.S. Nearly half the states now administer high-school exit exams that students must pass to receive diplomas - even if students have satisfied all other criteria for graduation. There is also a movement to "end social promotion," which often entails using test scores to determine which students are promoted to the next grade or held back.

State-wide tests can serve legitimate purposes. They can provide uniform data on student achievement and permit comparisons between student performance in different schools and school districts. They can also help teachers and students focus on the knowledge and skills that state policy makers consider most important.

But there are proper and improper ways of using tests to make high-stakes decisions about individual students, and the NAS report, entitled High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation (National Academy Press, 1999) makes a number of recommendations about proper use of high-stakes tests.

One is that tests should not be used to make high-stakes decisions about individual students unless educators can show that students have actually been taught the kinds of knowledge and skills that the test measures. In many states that expect students to meet "world-class" standards, however, "much needs to be done before world-class curriculum and instruction will be in place."

High Stakes also concludes that educators should not rely on test scores alone in making high-stakes decisions. The report cautions that "tracking, promotion, and graduation [decisions] should not automatically be made on the basis of a single test score but should be buttressed by other relevant information about the student's knowledge and skills, such as grades, teacher recommendations, and extenuating circumstances." Neither should students alone be held responsible for poor performance: "Accountability for educational outcomes should be a shared responsibility of states, school districts, public officials, educators, parents, and students. High standards cannot be established and maintained merely by imposing them on students."

The NAS study also concludes that a test use is inappropriate if it leads to placements and other consequences that are not educationally beneficial to students. After reviewing the research, the report identifies placement in typical low-track classes as one practice that is not educationally beneficial: "As tracking is currently practiced, low-track classes are typically characterized by an exclusive focus on basic skills, low expectations, and the least-qualified teachers. Students assigned to low-track classes are worse off than they would be in other placements. This form of tracking should be eliminated. Neither test scores nor other information should be used to place students in such classes."

The study reaches a similar conclusion with respect to simple retention in grade: Low-performing students who have been retained typically lose ground both academically and socially relative to similar students who have been promoted, and are much likelier to drop out. Moreover, the effects of retention are experienced most often by boys and students of color: roughly half of black or Latino boys in the 16-17 age group are at least a grade behind where they should be for their age, compared with about 20 percent for white girls. In a recommendation that is relevant to current debates over social promotion, the study finds that neither social promotion nor retention is an effective treatment. It recommends instead that educators "avoid simple either-or options when [evidence shows] that students are doing poorly in school, in favor of strategies combining early intervention and effective remediation of learning problems."

More generally, the report concludes that even good tests cannot by themselves lead to improved student performance: "In the absence of better treatments, better tests will not lead to better educational outcomes."

High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation (National Academy Press, 1999) is available online at

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