"How to Improve High-Stakes Test Scores Without Really Improving"

by Richard L. Allington, Ph.D., University of Florida, in Issues in Education: Contributions from Educational Psychology. Adapted by CalCARE and FairTest.

Here are twelve strategies that have been used to improve test scores without improving achievement, as reported in research reports and media accounts:
1. Alter the answer sheets (cheat). Change kids' wrong answers to right ones. Or tell kids to only answer the questions they know and leave the rest blank. Then fill in the right answers for them.
2. Encourage some kids to stay home or send them on a field trip.
3. Expel, push out, or encourage dropping out by low-achieving students.
4. Identify low-achieving students as pupils with disabilities. In many states their scores won't be counted, but to be doubly sure, specify in their IEPs that they take alternative assessments, or take the tests with accommodations or not at all.
5. Use "non-approved" test accommodations with pupils with disabilities. For instance, read the reading passages of the reading test aloud (and the answer choices) to kids. Have someone take student dictation for writing tests (preferably someone who will clean up run-on sentences and punctuation). While these accommodations might be approved for a social studies test, they alter reading and writing assessments so as to make results meaningless. But they do make the school look more effective.
6. Target resources away from certain groups of students (triage). Assume that high-scoring students will score high, and low-scorers will score low, so focus exclusively on those who might push the school over the benchmark.
7. Segregate students by achievement (track). Concentrate the low-scoring, hard-to-teach, troublesome students in one class, so the rest of the school can move faster through the material.
8. Invest in test prep which may raise scores but has no demonstrated effect on actual competence.
9. Flunk lots of kids. Despite this strategy being the most expensive approach for "closing the achievement gap," and despite its damage to the flunked kids, it is effective short-term in raising test scores because it removes low-scorers from any given grade.
10. Change the school year. Move "summer" vacation back into the spring and start school in the summer so there's more time in school before the tests.
11. Make the test easier. This can be done openly, as in California, or covertly, as has happened in Texas.
12. Lower the cut-off scores. This does not lead to score gains, but does provide a false impression of improvement since more students pass the test.

The full report is available from ra@coe.ufl.edu or by mail from Dick Allington, 2414 Norman Hall, UF, Gainesville FL 32611. CalCARE website, www.calcare.org, or email billd@calcare.org.