The High Cost of High Stakes Tests

“ …  It is a great and more serious evil, by too frequent and too numerous examinations, so to magnify their importance that students come to regard them not as a means in education but as the final purpose, the ultimate goal.  …  It is a very great and more serious evil to sacrifice systematic instruction and a comprehensive view of the subject for the scrappy and unrelated knowledge gained by students who are persistently drilled in the mere answering of questions issued by the Education Department or other governing bodies”  (in Nichols and Berliner, p. 1-2).

Truer words have never been written and while this could have been written today, these prophetic words were actually written in 1906 by the Department of Education in New York.  Sharon Nichols and David Berliner included this quote in their 2005 paper “The Inevitable Corruption of Indicators and Educators through High-Stakes Testing” (available:

In this paper, Nichols and Berliner explain the phenomenon Campbell’s Law, first described in 1976 by social science researcher Donald Campbell.  In short, according to Campbell’s Law, the use high-stakes tests can result in corruption and cheating as students, teachers, schools, and school districts are judged on their performance on these tests.  Since NCLB, school administrators facing increased scrutiny and sanctions have resorted to scandalous practices in a fight for their schools’ survival.

Absolutely.  And this is evident as the Atlanta school cheating trial began in late September this year.  The trial is expected to last for three months.  In 2011 a state investigation found 178 principals and teachers in Atlanta were involved in a widespread cheating scandal.  Earlier this week former Governor Sonny Perdue testified, stating,  “Even if a teacher were in the classroom, the amount of erasures that we saw from wrong to right could not have even been done within that testing period. … It became fairly evident to me that something had happened outside that classroom testing environment to those test documents, and that had to be conspiratorial.”

As the Atlanta trial unfolds (with little if any discussion by mainstream television media), education policy makers should use this opportunity to consider the high cost of our obsession with high stakes testing.   Obvious is the cost to taxpayers in Georgia for the investigations into the cheating scandal and the subsequent three month trial.  However, there are other not so obvious costs as well.  According to Fulton County assistant district attorney Fani Willis, “many of the victims of the cheating were struggling black students who would have been eligible to receive ‘millions’ in federal aid for tutoring, but never received the money because test scores showed they were meeting or exceeding grade-level expectations.”  (

When administrators and teachers engage in practices such as erasing and correcting students’ incorrect responses on standardized tests, it may make the school look better, but it can be devastating to low-performing students, who are overwhelmingly poor and students of color.  False victories when low-performing students appear to score proficiently on standardized tests actually rob these children of the opportunity to receive the services they are entitled to — the tutoring that could provide them the ability to become successful students.  The Atlanta cheating scandal trial will shed a spotlight on the misdeeds of school employees.  However, it will not provide any recourse for the nameless and faceless children who were robbed of their right to tutoring services as a result of the cheating scandal.  We will never know how their lives were impacted.  That cost is much greater than the millions spent on investigations and a trial.

Wendy Lecker further explores the high cost of high stakes testing in her article “Lecker: A generation jeopardized by obsession with testing” (   Since NCLB the curriculum has been severely narrowed, squeezing out the arts, music, science, physical education, and other subjects in favor of direct instruction and test prep in language arts and math, subjects that are tested.  And Lecker points out that there has been a sharp rise since 2005 in ADHD diagnoses among children who are required to sit for hours in school without physical activity.  Anxiety among students is on the rise as well.  High stakes testing is taking a toll on our nation’s children.  It is no wonder that the opt-out movement is growing as parents question the right of a state and federal government to force children to participate in day after day of strenuous high stakes tests.  It doesn’t make much sense that schools cannot force students to stand for the pledge of allegiance, but can force students to sit for hours taking tests in silent classrooms under lock down mode.