Collateral Damage

K-12 Testing

Collateral Damage: How High-Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools powerfully details the destructive effects on education of high-stakes standardized testing. Authors Sharon Nichols and David Berliner construct their case around "Campbell's Law," named for researcher Donald Campbell: "[T]he more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor." When standardized tests are used for graduation and promotion decisions, or required by state and federal school accountability, both education and the meaning of test scores are corrupted.


Using eloquent and pointed examples, the authors describe the consequences of high-stakes testing. They detail the growing pressures to cheat, the ways schools may exclude students so they are not "counted," and the manipulation of data so the district or state will score higher and look better. They describe how test validity is undermined when testing dominates curriculum because the resulting scores no longer adequately reflect actual learning.


The pressure to boost scores corrupts, narrows and dumbs-down curriculum. Nichols and Berliner provide numerous quotations from teachers, including one who said, "We only teach to the test at second grade, and have stopped teaching science and social studies." Another added, "[Students] are left with huge educational gaps."


The high-stakes process, they report, is degrading to teachers and to education as a whole, and the social consequences are likely to be devastating: "[T]he essence of liberal arts is liberty... [providing] the arts of free men and women. Instead, we teach our poor and minority students… the servile arts… Not only will those individuals suffer, but… we may be endangering our democracy as well."


They report research findings that drive home their points. For example, Harold Wenglinsky studied results from the fourth grade National Assessment of Educational Progress, which included survey data: "He found that frequent testing actually reduced scores on NAEP and that emphasizing facts (over reasoning and communication) also reduced students' scores." Indeed, the evidence is so strong, "There is absolutely no need for new research on high-stakes testing!"


They conclude with brief but useful reform recommendations, including a lessening of stakes and hence the pressures that produce corruption, and the use of multiple measures so no one measure becomes corrupted or exerts a corrupting influence.


This book is valuable for its sweep, its penetrating details, its powerful core argument focused on corruption, and its readability. It updates the now-extensive literature on the harmful consequences of high-stakes testing, including works on No Child Left Behind such as FairTest's Failing Our Children, and Leaving Children Behind, edited by Deborah Meier and George Wood.


Nichols teaches at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Berliner is at Arizona State University, is past president of the American Educational Research Association and a member of the National Academy of Education, and co-author of The Manufactured Crisis.


- Harvard Education Press; $24.95, paper; 234 pp.
- Failing Our Children is at