Since the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, high-stakes testing has dominated the educational field. States are now required to set challenging academic content standards for schools and students and regularly test students to measure their ability to meet these standards. These assessments are called high-stakes testing because of the severe consequences schools face if their students' test scores meet state standards. To prepare students to succeed on these tests, schools and teachers can incorporate a variety of test prep content into curriculum and daily lessons. Specially targeted strategies can be taught to English language learner students and students with disabilities, who may also be eligible to for test accommodations. Education professionals continue to debate the merits of high-stakes testing and stress the need to supplement it with other forms of assessment.
Keywords English Language Learners; High-Stakes Testing; High School Exit Exams; Individualized Education Program; Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA); Learning Styles; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Remediation; Sanctions; Short Answer Questions; Standardized Testing; Students with Disabilities; Writing Prompts
High-stakes tests are assessments which students, instructors, schools, districts, and states use to account for student performance (Loschert, 2000, as cited in Coltrane, 2002). High-stakes tests are used to determine grade retention, school curriculum, and whether or not students will receive a high school diploma. They also determine adequate progress of public schools; failure to achieve progress can result in loss of funding to districts. These tests are usually standardized assessments, although some states have designed their own testing instruments. With the passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB), the use of high-stakes tests is more widespread than ever before (Coltrane, 2002).
Requirements of No Child Left Behind
The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 requires students to be assessed in mathematics and reading/English language arts in grades three through eight as well as in one high school grade by the 2005-2006 school year. By the 2007-2008 school year, states will be required to also assess their students in science - at least once in grades three through five, once in grades six through nine, and once in grades ten through twelve. The act also mandates states to set challenging academic content standards and align assessments with the state content standards. The act, however, does not define content standards, set the performance standards for each state, or detail the type of assessments or cutoff scores that should be used. These determinations are instead left to each individual state. Each state is also allowed to set the minimum number of students needed for reporting subgroups' results to determine whether a school or district has made adequate yearly progress. NCLB also describes how states are to set their annual measurable objectives, which are based on the percentage of students performing at or above proficiency. These standards are used to determine if schools, districts, and states make annual yearly progress. The progress targets must be set so all students will be at the proficient level or above by 2014; if the percentage of students passing state tests is insufficient, schools have not made adequate yearly progress. Sanctions are imposed on schools not meeting their annual yearly progress two years in a row. Sanctions become increasingly severe for schools missing targets for a third, fourth, and fifth years in a row. Students may be transferred to other schools, staff may be replaced, the state may take over the school, and, ultimately, federal funding may be withdrawn (Linn, 2005).
Preparing Students for High-Stakes Tests
With the enactment of No Child Left Behind, every state-mandated testing program has become a high-stakes testing program for students, schools, and districts. In such a high-stakes learning environment, instructors must do everything they can to prepare their students to successfully demonstrate their knowledge and skills on these tests.
Researchers have found a significant relationship between test preparation and academic performance (Norton & Park, 1996, as cited in Gulek, 2003) indicating that adequate test preparation can significantly improve students' attitudes toward test taking and actual test performance (Chittooran & Miles, 2001, as cited in Gulek, 2003). To prepare students for high-stakes testing, instructors should teach the content domain, test strategies, and time management skills; use a variety of assessment approaches and formats; teach time; foster student motivation; and show students how they can allay test anxiety (Miyasaka, 2000, as cited in Gulek, 2003).
Teaching to the Test
High-stakes testing puts a great deal of pressure on instructors, and may tempt them to simply teach to the test and discount teaching students other skills and competencies. While this sort teaching may raise students' scores, it can hurt them later on. Appropriate test preparation presents materials that are outside the scope of the test. Instructors should expose students to all curriculum objectives targeted to their grade level to give them the chance to demonstrate what they have learned and what they can do. By doing so, test scores will still show student competency and students will be able to correctly handle any unexpected test material (Gulek, 2003).
Multiple-choice question are still the preferred format for many high-stakes tests because they can be straightforwardly and inexpensively scored, and because they can efficiently cover a variety of topics. However, open ended questions like short answer questions and writing prompts are also used (Chudowsky et al., 2002).
When preparing student for testing, instructors should use a variety of assessment approaches and formats as part of the test preparation process. Exposing students to different approaches is a good practice because they can learn to apply their knowledge and skills to multiple learning situations. Student have different learning styles, and using a variety of approaches allows instructors additional opportunities to see what their students know and can do, determine which types of questions they best to, and adjust their instruction accordingly (Gulek, 2003). Students should also be taught test taking strategies like eliminating answers, underlining important passages or information, and skipping questions as well as the basics preparations like getting a good night's sleep the night before a test and eating a good breakfast the morning of the test.
A lack of time management skills can also hinder student performance on high-stakes tests. These skills are especially vital to students with disabilities. Studies have shown that when teachers spend time on time management skills, all students, including those with disabilities, demonstrated proficiency on exams (Jakupcak & Rushton, 1992, as cited in Gulek, 2003). One of the simplest ways to help students with time management is to give assessments with time limits throughout the year so they can become accustomed to taking tests under time constraints (Clovis, 1999, as cited in Gulek, 2003). Three ways of reviewing material for high-stakes tests that can be used. The first one is to incorporate daily reviews by having students conduct short reviews of lecture notes before and after class. The second way is to have weekly reviews by suggesting to students that they dedicate one hour per subject per week reviewing assigned reading and lecture notes. The last method is to conduct major reviews by, starting the week before a major test, having students study their most difficult subjects when they are most alert. For some students, this will be in the morning; for others; it can be the afternoon or evening. Students should be encouraged to study anywhere between two to five hours with sufficient breaks interspersed throughout (Loulou, 1997, as cited in Gulek, 2003).
A student's attitude toward testing can play a significant role in student performance, especially at the lower grades. Studies have shown that there is a consistent relationship between having a positive attitude and higher levels of reading achievement in grades one through eight (White, 1989, as cited in Gulek, 2003). Students with high levels of effort have also been shown to generally make better-than-average learning gains (Roderick & Engel, 2001, as cited in Gulek, 2003). Therefore, encouraging students to have a positive outlook about taking high-stakes tests can be crucial for student success, and instructors should stress the importance of properly preparing for these tests (Gulek, 2003).
With the do-or-die climate surrounding high-stakes testing, test anxiety has become quite prevalent among students in public schools, which can detrimentally affect student performance. Research has shown that the higher the anxiety level, the lower student performance tends to be (Berliner & Casanova, 1988; Hancock, 2001; Smith, Arnkoff & Wright, 1990, as cited in Gulek, 2003). Test anxiety and study habits also have a negative relationship.
Since test anxiety can have such an adverse effect on student success, it is important that instructors address it in class. Instructors should also acknowledge to their class that everyone has some stress when faced with a test and then teach them how to deal with the stress. Teaching students test-taking strategies and problem-solving skills is an effective way to help students overcome their anxieties and go into testing situations with the confidence that they will be successful (Gulek, 2003). Using positive reinforcement can also increase students' confidence. And teaching students relaxation techniques that they can use before, during, and after the test can help reduce...
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