Campus & Community

Studies: ‘High Stakes’ Tests Are Counterproductive Economically Disadvantaged Students

6 min read

So-called “high stakes” testing policies that require students to pass standardized tests deepen educational inequity between whites and minorities and widen the educational gap between affluent and impoverished students, according to two studies of education reform in Texas. The studies, commissioned by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, were presented at a policy briefing in Washington, D.C., on Jan. 7, 2000.

Texas is frequently cited as a national leader in efforts to raise academic performance and hold schools accountable for student performance. At the center of these efforts is the statewide standardized test, the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS), administered to public school children in grades 3 to 10. Students must achieve a minimum score to proceed to the next grade and to graduate from high school. In addition, TAAS breaks down scores, dropout figures, and attendance rates by racial, ethnic, and economic groups. This data is used to rate schools and accredit districts.

The state requires that schools maintain minimum passing rates on the TAAS test in reading, writing, and math; a 94 percent attendance rate; and a maximum dropout rate of 6 percent. Top-scoring schools receive cash bonuses, while low-performing schools are subject to public hearings and, ultimately, to state takeover.

“Texas is frequently heralded as a successful model for the nation of how tests can improve the academic performance of students, particularly poor and minority students,” says Gary Orfield, professor of education and social policy at the School of Education and co-director of the Civil Rights Project. “These studies, however, raise serious questions about the wisdom of putting so much at stake on one measure.”

Quality of Instruction Suffers

In one study, Linda McNeil of Rice University and Angela Valenzuela of the University of Texas examined the impact of TAAS on the quality of instruction, curriculum, and classroom practices in Texas schools, focusing on those schools that serve large numbers of minority and economically disadvantaged populations.

The authors’ overall conclusion was that “TAAS masks the real problems of inequity that underlie the failure to adequately educate children. By shifting funds, public attention and scarce organizational and budgetary resources away from schools and into the coffers of the testing industry vendors, the futures of poor and minority children and the schools they attend get compromised.”

In a second study, Gary Natriello of Teachers College, Columbia University, and Aaron Pallas of Michigan State University examined the performance on state testing programs for students in different racial and ethnic groups in Texas, New York, and Minnesota. They found that minority students performed less well than their majority group peers in all cases.

Achievement Gap Remains

Other key findings from the two studies show that:

Between 1996 and 1998, almost twice as many black and Hispanic students as white students had not completed the TAAS exit-level tests required to obtain a Texas high school diploma.

Pressure to raise TAAS scores leads teachers to spend class time, often several hours each week, drilling students on practice exam materials. Much of this time is spent learning how to bubble-in answers, how to weed out obviously wrong answers, and how to become accustomed to multiple-choice, computer-scored formats.

Although practice tests and classroom drills have raised the pass rate for the reading section of the TAAS in high schools, few students are able to use those same skills to complete actual reading assignments outside of class, to make meaning of literature, or to connect reading assignments to other parts of the course such as discussion and writing.

Teachers are encouraged or required to suspend or interrupt science, social studies, and other core subjects not tested by TAAS for TAAS preparation in other disciplines. In addition, library research, independent projects, science experiments, oral histories, long-term writing assignments different from those being tested in a particular year are all being eliminated or reduced in those schools where TAAS scores have been low.

In low-performing schools, the TAAS system of testing encourages the diversion of scarce school resources (including dollars for instructional materials) into TAAS-prep materials rather than into the kinds of instructional resources available to teachers and children in middle-class and wealthy schools.

By reinforcing learning from discreet, randomly selected, brief pieces of information, TAAS ignores research findings that children’s understanding is best developed through the building of cumulative skills that can be applied in an unfamiliar setting or to unfamiliar material in the future.

“What we’re finding out from Texas is truly frightening: when high-stakes tests drive education reform, they can reduce the curriculum in high-poverty schools to little more than test preparation. Assessment is, of course, a vital part of education, but the stakes attached to these tests are way out of balance when such a limited and imperfect measure of achievement counts for more than all the assessments of all the students’ teachers,” says Orfield.

Policy Implications

Orfield states that the Civil Rights Project strongly supports the recommendation of the National Academy of Sciences’ report titled High Stakes: Testing for Tracking, Promotion, and Graduation (1999) – that single tests never be used as the sole determiner of graduation or grade promotion. He believes that a combination of high-quality curriculum and instruction supported by assessment and timely intervention when students fall behind is a much more effective approach.

The legality of linking high school graduation to test scores in Texas has been challenged by the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund (MALDEF). In a suit filed in a federal district court against the Texas Education Agency in October 1997, MALDEF stated that “approximately 7,500 students each year do not pass the TAAS test and are denied a diploma. . . . Over half of Texas’ minority students in the sophomore year do not pass one or more parts of the TAAS test, and approximately 85% of the students who do not pass the TAAS in May before graduation are Mexican American or African American.”

A decision on this lawsuit is pending. During the trial, Walter Haney of Boston College presented statistics showing that, following the imposition of the test, the already high dropout rates for black and Hispanic students in the state shot up and has remained high, threatening the economic future of those students.

Information on high-stakes testing and other topics can be found at the Civil Rights Project’s Website at