“High-Stakes” Harm”

How can teachers maintain their critical stance toward assessment, yet still help prepare students to take ‘high-stakes’ tests?

By Linda Christensen

Tests today are high-stakes. Based on these numbers, students are retained, placed in summer school and remedial classes; schools are reconstituted, and teachers’ and principals’ salaries rise and fall. Students, especially those who “fail” the tests, internalize the failure, and question their ability and their intelligence. They learn to blame themselves, and some come to believe they will not succeed because they are not capable enough. As my daughter said after receiving a three (not competent) on an oral Spanish test, “Maybe I don’t have what it takes.” The test took away the experience of animated conversations with her host family in Cuernavaca as well as her ability to navigate Mexico City. Instead of questioning the validity of the measurement tool as an “authentic assessment,” especially compared to her experience in Mexico, she questioned herself.

So while critical teachers might stand back and say we don’t want to have anything to do with tests, you better believe that we can’t just go on with business as usual. The question for anyone who cares about kids is how do we retain our critical stance on assessments while preparing students for them? Can we “teach the tests” without compromising what we know to be true about teaching and learning?

My friends at low-achieving elementary schools have been counseled to acclimate students to tests by redesigning their regular curriculum so that students can get accustomed to multiple choice questions. But in a classroom sensitive to equity issues, that’s not easy. How can a role play about an important historical or social issue be reformatted into a multiple choice activity? How does an a, b, c, d answer format encourage students to look at issues from the perspective of an interned Japanese American or a Cherokee Indian facing government-ordered removal? Teachers are also asked to mimic the more “authentic” assessments in fairly inauthentic ways. A kindergarten colleague was asked by the third grade teachers to prepare students for the state six-trait analysis scoring guide by giving them scores of one to six scores on every- thing from lining up at the door to tying their shoes and counting.

Clearly, this isn’t the kind of teaching we want to happen in our classrooms. To achieve real gains in student knowledge and skill, we must continue to give students a rich curriculum with varied opportunities to use their learning in real world activities. This material will generate growth that may or may not be reflected in test scores, but will increase the likelihood of students seeing them- selves as readers, writers, historians, scientists, mathematicians, and thinkers.

However, I live in a state that has filled our classrooms with tests — multiple choice and work samples. As a teacher and mother who has patched up the wounds test scores left behind and as the recent victim of a school that was reconstituted in part due to low test scores, I am a firm advocate in fighting against the over-assessment of students. But I also believe we must seize the opening to demystify the tests — to help our students critically analyze these exams and the assumptions behind them — as well as motivate them and coach them in test-taking skills so they may potentially be able to increase their performance.


A social justice curriculum equips students to question what is often taken for granted. Tests have become as much a part of the curriculum as books. (In fact, these days there seems to be more money for testing, test preparation, test scoring than for the books we need to teach. A good question might be, “Why are we spending so much money on testing when we need books?”) In critical classrooms, we can make testing the object of our curiosity.

Begin by questioning the origins and purpose of these tests. Some of the questions one might ask students: Who made the tests? What are the tests supposed to measure? How will the test scores be used? For example, in Oregon, students take multiple tests. One might think that these tests will be used to help teachers more accurately assess their students’ abilities or progress to improve instruction. But because the tests are given during the school year — from February to April — and the scores aren’t returned to the schools until the school year has almost ended, one has to question the legitimacy of that claim. If we really want to know how well students are doing in school, why can’t we ask teachers, students, or parents? Why don’t we look at student work? Portfolios? Dave Hamilton, an award-winning science teacher, wrote in an article for The Oregonian, “[T]ests given by classroom teachers are almost never high stakes. Teachers typically use an average of test scores (never a single test score) as only one indicator of student achievement. They also rely on written work such as papers and other assignments, class participation, and special projects. Compared to the state’s single test score, teachers have a wealth of information on which to assess student achievement… [T]eachers are the only people with the intimate knowledge of student achievement over time needed to make such judgments.”

Another way to scrutinize the tests is to find statistics generated from these exams. In my school district, the local newspaper happily prints scores and rates schools, but our research and evaluation department also has broken the scores down by gender and race. Have students examine the statistics. Which school in the district usually receives high scores? Which ones don’t? Is there a pattern? Are the scores related to parents’ income? Race?

This one is tricky because you don’t want to leave the students with the idea that race or income are indicators of intelligence or the only factors determining academic achievement. It is important to examine the questions to see how the content might favor one race or one gender or one income bracket. FairTest Examiner is a good resource for this information on the SATs.

Sometimes you can find these selections in your own city or state assessments. Ruthann Hartley, a former colleague from Jefferson High School, was furious after she administered the state reading test last year. According to Hartley, a disproportionate number of questions examined a passage and chart from

Consumer Reports on frequent flyer benefits. Hartley noted, “This is a problematic item for teenagers, but especially for low-income students who don’t travel. Passages like this raise the question of what is being tested. If students answer incorrectly, is it because they can’t read or because they don’t have the background knowledge?”

Students might also question how the test results are used. Who benefits if they get high scores? Are students placed in honors or remedial classes? Given scholarships? Special programs? Are teachers’ or principals’ salaries tied to the results? Have students interview school and district administrators and department chairs about how students are placed in honors classes, talented and gifted programs. Are test scores the only criterion?

Asking students to become investigators prior to exam time can help put the tests in a social context, but more than that, it diminishes the size of their opponent. Students see behind the Wizard of Oz curtain and realize that no geniuses are laboring to construct these tests.


While my junior and senior students weren’t saddled with the Certificate of Initial Mastery (CIM) reading, writing, and math tests, that Oregon 3rd-, 5th-, 8th-, and 10th-graders currently take, my students were having their behinds kicked by the SATs. After their encounters with these grueling tests, they fumed to me and their math teachers. “Those tests might as well have been written in Greek!” Shameka said after her Saturday was ruined by the exams. For my students, an investigation of the history of the SATs was as critical as teaching them how to improve their scores. The SAT/ACT scores become a brand of shame students carry long after they bubble in the last answer. If they score low on the test, they doubt themselves and wonder if they are as capable as the kid who scored higher.

To help students understand the origins of the exam and help them put the scores in perspective, my class reads a chapter from David Owens’ book None of the Above called “The Cult of Mental Measurement.” In this essay, Owens describes the racist past of the SATs and also points out how race continues to be a factor in these kinds of standardized tests today. Students are outraged by their discoveries. (For example, the founder of the SATs, Carl Campbell Brigham, published in the same eugenics journal that Adolf Hitler wrote for.) But even without this gem of a chapter to use, getting students to investigate the origin and use of tests in their school district or state is a good place to start. (See Bill Bigelow’s “Testing, Tracking, and Toe- ing the Line: A Role Play on the Origins of the Modern High School” in Rethinking Our Classroom to help students develop a critique of the historical motivation behind the testing industry.)


Once students have gained a critical edge on the tests, we might be able to help them improve their performance by examining both the content and the format of the tests themselves. The more they know about how the questions are put together as well as the vocabulary of the material, the better prepared they are to meet the challenge.

In my senior English class, students demystified the SATs and used their knowledge to teach others about their discoveries. We started by analyzing each of the verbal sections of the SATs. We examined the instructions, language, and “objectives” of each section. We took apart the analogies and figured out the kinds of relationships they paired. (We used The Princeton Review: Cracking the SAT to help us wade through and prepare. David Owens wrote the foreword.) We looked at how the language and culture of the SATs reflected the world of upper class society with words like heirloom, inheritance, conservatory, regatta.

After examining each section and taking the tests a few times, I asked students to construct their own tests using the culture, content and vocabulary of our school—from sports to dance to awards. Pairs of students worked together developing questions which the entire class examined, then we put together the JAT, Jefferson Achievement Tests.


Each question below consists of a related pair of words or phrases, followed by four lettered pairs of words or phrases. Select the lettered pair that best expresses a relationship similar to that expressed in the original pair.

1. Tony: Play::

a. Broadway : Annie
b. Oscar : Tom Hanks
c. Brandon : soccer
d. Howard Cherry : sports

(The “correct answer is d. The “Tony” is an award given for a play. At Jefferson the “Howard Cherry” is an award given for sports.)

2. New Growth : Perm ::

a. press : straight
b. weave : long
c. corn row : braid
d. nails : fill

(The correct answer is d. When you get “new growth” it is time for a perm. In the same way, if you wear acrylic nails and your nails grow out, you need to get a fill.)

4. Red Beans and Rice : Play ::

a. corn and tortillas : run
b. song : dance
c. mozzarella : cheese
d. sonata : musical

(The correct answer is c. Red Beans and Rice is the name of a play; mozzarella is the name of a kind of cheese.)

5. Dancebelt : Boxers ::

a. shoes : socks
b. student : teacher
c. leotard : leg warmers
d. prison : freedom

(Although this one changes form from concrete nouns to abstract nouns, I like the humor and use of Jefferson’s dance legacy in the answer “d”. As a male dancer explained, a dancebelt secures a male dancer’s privates during dance. Comparing the dancebelt to boxers is like comparing prison to freedom.)

After completing the test, students took the JAT up to Ruth Hubbard’s education classes at Lewis and Clark College. My students asked the pre-service teachers to imagine that the JAT was a high-stakes test that will determine their future— what college they get into, scholarships, etc. After the tests, students discussed the issues of testing and language. In this way, my students had a real audience whose future teaching practice was hope- fully enlightened by their work.

Obviously, our JAT is not an exact equivalent of the SAT, but developing their own analogies from Jefferson’s culture helped students understand the mechanics of the exam. It also made them see that if they were the test makers, using their culture and their vocabulary, they could also devise a test that could be used to exclude some and include others. Perhaps the most important lesson of the unit came when students asked, “Why would someone want to devise a test to keep students out of a college they want to enter?” Indeed.

Teaching students to examine the his- tory and motives of local and state tests and preparing them for the big day(s), is no substitute for fighting to end the encroachment of assessments in our class- rooms; nor is it a substitute for day-in, day-out teaching that encourages real- life thinking and learning. The work I’ve proposed may demystify the tests and help students question their legitimacy; our bigger work as teachers and parents is to engage in the battle to stop testing that makes young people, like my daughter, question their ability.

Linda Christensen (lchrist@aol.com) is a Rethinking Schools editor and Language Arts Coordinator for Portland (OR) Public Schools.