High-Stakes Test-Based Accountability Policies: Problems and Pitfalls

High-Stakes Test-Based Accountability
Policies: Problems and Pitfalls

Anne Wheelock

In 1993, the Massachusetts Board of Education approved a policy
advisory for circulation to all school districts in Massachusetts.
Entitled “School Account-ability and Indicator Systems: Implications
for Policy Making in Massachusetts,” the policy advisory
presented research on accountability policies and standards-based
reform. Among other findings, this policy advisory noted that:

School accountability policies should increase the use of good
educational practice, reduce the use of harmful or wasteful practice,
and create in-school mechanisms to change practices that do not
lead to learning.

Accountability policies should balance different approaches
(including the reporting of basic data that describe the status
of schools, local decision-making and reporting of locally selected
indicators, recognition of highly effective schools, and state
monitoring of compliance with equity regulations) for maximum
impact on improving education.

A combination of “managerial” and “professional”
accountability approaches is most likely to contribute to strengthened
learning for all students, develop a “press for achievement”
in schools, ensure equal opportunity to learn, and enhance professional
and collegial practice in each school.

Research on High-Stakes, Test-Based Accountability Policies

In its policy advisory, the 1993 Board of Education found that
outcomes-based policies are inadequate for judging or improving
schools. As the policy advisory stated, statewide testing and
the reporting of test scores do not constitute an accountability
policy. The Board noted that too narrow a focus on reporting of
outcomes could actually render indicator systems less rather than
more useful as time passes. The Board’s advisory also identified
well-documented negative consequences of test-based accountability
systems that tie rewards, punishments, and the futures of students,
teachers, schools, and communities to test scores. These include:

  • Exclusion of weaker students from the assessed pool of students;
  • Lowered morale among teachers and students;
  • The loss of experienced educators from schools enrolling
    many disadvantaged students;
  • Distortion of instruction and curriculum to reflect test
    content and format;
  • Cheating and corruption of test scores.

Negative Consequences of High-Stakes Testing in Massachusetts

In 1999, the Board of Education reversed the policy advisory
approved by the previous board and declared that MCAS test results
would be used as the sole indicator for assessing schools despite
the fact that the state has not yet demonstrated the tests themselves
meet standards for reliability and validity. Student scores on
extended tests in English, social studies, science, and mathematics
will now determine consequences for both schools and students.
Schools will receive rewards and sanctions depending on test scores
alone. In some districts, MCAS scores are to be used to determine
student promotion, and eventually student scores will be used
to determine graduation.

What can we predict will happen in Massachusetts? As schools
work harder to look better without necessarily becoming better,
how are different groups of students and educators most likely
to be affected? Emerging evidence suggests that all the negative
effects documented nationally will accumulated in Massachusetts.
The most important include:

A heightened “push out” effect as weaker students
are distanced from the mainstream
Pressured to show results quickly, schools and parents will be
inclined to maintain students with disabilities in the most segregated
(and most expensive) program prototypes. An increase in grade
retention will separate low-scoring students from their age-mates
and age-appropriate grades. Dropout rates will increase, especially
in ninth grade. As passing rates on the 10th grade test increase,
test supports will claim schools are improving.

Lowered morale among teachers and students, especially in disadvantaged
Teachers already report lowered morale among students. As one
urban high school teacher notes, classes over the testing period
become smaller and smaller. He says, “What this test is doing
is driving my students away from school.” Likewise, teachers
in low-income schools already note the temptation to leave for
schools where students have better chances of being successful.
As one teacher in a high-poverty middle school with many new immigrant
students notes, “If MCAS truly becomes the sole criteria
for judging schools, principals, teachers and superintendents,
we really have even more of a disaster on our hands. It’s hard
enough to get teachers to stay in urban schools with a high ratio
of students in lower socio-economic status, but now there will
be a huge attempt by teachers to flee to school systems with wealthier
families. We all know who will do better on these tests and why,
so how can we expect teachers to stay in these systems when not
only their jobs but their reputations can be destroyed.”

Time lost to real learning and teaching for understanding

After two test administrations, many Massachusetts teachers
already report spending increasing amounts of time preparing students
to take the test. This is time lost to real learning and teaching.
So that they can “cover” all the content required, some
schools have abandoned use of primary source materials in favor
of text books. While some effects of “teaching to the test”
may be positive (such as increased writing), overall, depth will
give way to “covering content” as teachers work to ensure
that their students do not encounter unfamiliar concepts on MCAS.

Massachusetts has no reason to optimistic that current accountability
policies will bring about better schooling for Massachusetts students,
especially those most in need of better schools. In fact, these
policies will contribute to diminished excellence and greater
inequity as time passes.

Anne Wheelock is an independent education policy analyst and
writer. Her recent book, Safe To Be Smart: Building a Culture
for Standards-Based Reform in the Middle Grades (Nat. Middle School
Assoc., 1998), describes many Massachusetts classrooms where students’
and teachers’ work meets standards of high quality.


ARN , k-12