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Cautions Issued About High-Stakes Tests

Share School Issues CenterWith the growing use of high-stakes tests, the American Educational Research Association is recommending that school district leaders and policy makers take a close look at the organization's guidelines before linking school reform to test scores. The guidelines are AERA's effort to prevent such tests from harming students. Included: A summary of the guidelines for using high-stakes tests.

The governing board of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) recently issued school district leaders and policy makers guidelines about high-stakes tests. In a statement, the organization acknowledges that although policy makers generally institute high-stakes tests with the good intention of improving education, they need to carefully evaluate the tests' potential to cause serious harm.

AERA's Guidelines for High-Stakes Tests

* Protect students against decisions based on a single test.
* Provide adequate resources and opportunities for learning.
* Disclose likely negative consequences of high-stakes tests.
* Align tests with the curriculum.
* Validate passing scores and achievement levels.
* Provide meaningful opportunities for remediation for those who fail.
* Ascertain that tests don't evaluate language proficiency unless that is a primary purpose of the test.
* Provide appropriate attention/accommodations to students with disabilities.
* Adhere to rules about which students should be tested.
* Validate each test for intended use.
* Evaluate the intended and unintended effects of high-stakes testing.
The AERA guidelines suggest the following possible negative outcomes as a result of high-stakes tests:
  • Students may be placed at increased risk of educational failure and dropping out.
  • Teachers may be blamed or punished for inequitable resources over which they have no control.
  • Curriculum and instruction may be severely distorted if high test scores per se, rather than learning, become the overriding goal of classroom instruction.

AERA, an international professional organization of more than 22,000 educators, administrators, and other education-related professionals and behavioral scientists, promotes educational research and its practical application. It refers to high-stakes tests as assessments that carry serious consequences such as bonus or merit pay for teachers and schools and retention or denial of high school diplomas for students.

The AERA guidelines, which are geared for policy makers, reflect public concern about the growing use of high-stakes tests, said William J. Russell, executive director of AERA. "It has become increasingly important for the association to make policy statements," Russell told Education World. "In the past, we have been reluctant to do so, but there is great movement to say more about public policy issues."

A committee of educators -- all experts in measurement and assessment -- developed the recommendations, which were adopted unanimously by AERA's governing board at its June 28 meeting. The governing board and committee members had a variety of perspectives about high-stakes testing, but all agreed on several conditions for high-stakes testing, Russell said.


AERA recommends that school districts implementing high-stakes tests meet the following conditions to avoid negative outcomes from high-stakes tests:

  • The very first recommendation cautions against reaching decisions that affect an individual student's life chances or educational opportunities based on the score of one test alone.

  • High-stakes tests must be fair to both students and teachers. School districts should provide adequate resources and opportunities for students to learn the content to be tested. Before schools, teachers, or students are sanctioned for failing to meet the new standards, teachers should be provided with retraining.

  • There must be alignment between the test and the curriculum. Both the content of the test and the cognitive processes students engage in while taking the test should adequately represent the curriculum. To avoid teaching to the test (which AERA says is inevitable because incentives are offered based on test scores), schools should introduce different tests on a regular basis.

  • The tests must be fair for students, who should have meaningful opportunities to learn the content when individual student accountability or certification is based on test scores. School districts must show that the tested content has been incorporated into the curriculum, materials, and instruction before high-stakes consequences are imposed for failing examination.

  • Students who fail the test must have meaningful remediation opportunities. The remediation should focus on the knowledge and skills the test is intended to address, not just on the test taking.

  • Students should have many opportunities to pass the test if the scores are used to decide promotion to the next grade or high school graduation. However, sufficient time should be provided before students retake the test to assure that they have time to remedy any weaknesses discovered.

Again, AERA said a high-stakes policy shouldn't base students' future on the test scores of one test, but rather, students should be offered alternate means to demonstrate their achievement. The AERA statement reported there is evidence that a test score may not adequately reflect a student's true proficiency.


AERA also suggests that school districts and policy makers assure that high-stakes tests are valid and reliable. AERA defines reliability as the accuracy or precision of test scores.

  • Scores reported for individuals or for schools must support sufficiently and accurately each intended interpretation of student achievement. Tests that may be valid for one use may be invalid for another. Separate assessments are needed for each purpose of the test.

  • Accuracy should be examined for the scores actually used. For example, information about the reliability of raw scores may not adequately describe the accuracy of percentiles; information about the reliability of school means may be insufficient if scores for subgroups are also used in reaching decisions about schools.

  • A testing program must also establish specific scores to determine passing or proficient achievement. The program must demonstrate how the scores represent student attainment and clearly state the test's purpose and the meaning of passing scores or achievement levels.

The AERA guidelines point out that there has been confusion with minimum competency levels required for grade-to-grade promotion, grade level standards, and world-class standards.


The AERA guidelines recommend that schools provide appropriate attention to both students with disabilities and students with language differences. Schools should be sure a test is an accurate measurement of the content, advised Lorrie Shepard, past president of AERA, who helped develop the guidelines pertaining to students with disabilities and English-learning students.

If wearing glasses will help the student demonstrate math achievement, then it is necessary the student wear glasses, she said, referring to a common analogy about accommodations provided for those with disabilities.

"Students with disabilities need to ask: Is my disability such that I have a better chance to demonstrate my achievement if the school provides certain accommodations?" Shepard said. "Tests must be as accurate a measurement as possible without impediments that are artificial to the testing."

If a student lacks mastery of the language in which a test is given, then that test becomes, in part, a test of language proficiency, according to AERA's guidelines. The test should not be used with students who cannot understand the instructions or the language of the test itself.

If English-language learners are tested in English, their performance should be interpreted in light of their language proficiency. Special accommodations for English-language learners may be necessary to obtain valid scores, the guidelines suggest.

School districts also need to have explicit rules for determining which students are to be tested and exempted. Such policies must be uniformly enforced to assure the validity of score comparisons among schools, districts, or other units when changes in scores are tracked over time.

In addition, reporting test score results should accurately portray the percentage of students exempted.


With any high-stakes testing program, it is essential that there is an ongoing evaluation of both the intended and unintended consequences, the AERA guidelines advise. In most cases, the governmental body that mandates the test should also provide resources for continuing research to further evaluate the effects of the testing program.

In addition, test developers and educators need to make serious efforts to explain to policy makers the likely negative effects of a given testing program, AERA proposes.

Diane Weaver Dunne
Education World®
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