The Impact of High-Stakes Tests on Instruction – Part 1

I recently had the privilege of observing a third grade classroom in Thompson School District in Loveland, Colorado. The students had read through the article “Day of Disaster” by Lauren Tarshis (Reading and Writing About Informational Texts, Grade 3 microcourse) with their teacher and had charted together the unfamiliar words and confusing moments from the text. They were brainstorming as a class what resources and strategies they might use to solve these difficulties. The strategies included things like “re-read the passage,” “look for context clues,” “look in a dictionary,” “ask a peer,” “Google it.” One student interrupted the brainstorm to express a concern.

“But Ms. Stroiker, we won’t have peers, or dictionaries, or Google or any of those things to help us when we’re taking the test.”

Whoa. Back up the train. Ms. Stroiker hadn’t mentioned anything about a test, let alone “the” test. Regardless, many of this student’s classmates immediately joined her, jumping on the panic train and voicing their own concerns about the problem-solving strategies being listed. How were these going to serve them on “the” test?

What was going on?

These students were convinced that if a strategy or skill wasn’t specifically designed to help them succeed on some ever-looming test then it wasn’t worth learning. This idea didn’t spring fully formed in their tender third-grade brains without precedent. It was too firmly and widely held for that. It had obviously been planted by previous instruction: the kind of instruction that has emerged all across the country since the dawn of No Child Left Behind and the subsequent high-stakes-testing mania.

We can’t really blame teachers and administrators, whose jobs and funding are linked to test scores in many states, for narrowing classroom instruction to ensure students score well on these mandated tests. However, with the benefit of hindsight, researchers are discovering unequivocally, that these practices, while sometimes raising test scores, have resulted in shallow learning, increased illiteracy, a higher dropout rate, and a generation of students who are far from college and career ready.

When teachers and students spend their energies preparing for shallow high-stakes assessments, deeper learning—the kind of thinking valued in colleges and the workforce—suffers… In the almighty pursuit to get students to fill in “bubbles” on test sheets correctly, our students lose out on learning those skills that would make them “expert citizens”: creativity, common sense, wisdom, ethics, dedication, honest, teamwork, hard work, how to win and lose, fair play, and life long learning” (Sternberg 2007/2008). Instead, we get “higher” test scores and lower thinkers. (Gallagher 21)

In other words, when reading instruction is taught as a series of test-taking strategies, we are actually inhibiting students from becoming proficient life-long readers, as documented in Kelly Gallagher’s book, Readicide,

“… the overemphasis on testing is playing a major part in killing off readers in America’s classrooms…Sadly, in overemphasizing reading that students will confront on standardized reading tests, schools are working against developing independent readers…We are developing test-takers at the expense of readers” (p. 7).

Which was why I wanted to celebrate with a happy-dance in the corner when I heard Ms. Stroiker’s reply to her anxious students.

“Hey guys, this is not about a test. This is about all the ways we learn to become great readers. If we use our brains and energy every day to become great readers we won’t need to worry about tests. Great readers always do well on tests, but more importantly great readers do better in life. This is about life.”


The researchers couldn’t have said it better.


P.S. If you haven’t read Readicide, order it right now!

P.P.S. We’re not done talking about this. Click here to read part 2!