Accountability & High Stakes Testing

There has been considerable debate on the impact of high stakes testing on the overall quality of education. Additionally with focus being turned on making educators more accountable for students learning, as determined by students’ performance on such tests, increasingly more evidence is pointing to the harmful effects of those tests. Though some educators still maintain that high stakes tests could improve on the quality of education, there have been too much negative reports on their disadvantages for such a position to be agreeable.

Accountability is also aimed to ensure this end but I too believe that both can prove harmful to the quality of education. High Stakes tests are usually standardized tests that are administered by sources external to the educational environment in which learning takes place. Such tests, an example of which is the SAT, are characteristically administered at a single sitting to all examinees. The content examined on such tests is usually based on a general curriculum from which classroom teachers would have constructed their unit and lesson plans.

What makes such tests high-stake is not the instrument that is used but the decisions that are made based on the results of such tests. High stakes standardized tests often impact instructional decisions negatively. Poor performance of students on such tests is usually assumed to mean poor performance of the teacher. Teachers, under threat of accountability, attempt to improve their performance by adopting measures that ensure that more students pass, even if that means ignoring the general educational objectives prescribed by the curriculum.

Worthen (1993) makes the point that the pressures accompanying high-stakes-tests result more often in other, less beneficial practices and outcomes. Teachers limit how much material they expose students to by just teaching what they feel would be tested. Worthen calls this “teaching to the test. ” Quality is thereby sacrificed. Worthen & Spandel (1991) further add that the content of such tests are often “mismatched with the content emphasized in a school’s curriculum and classrooms” (p. 66).

Even where the teacher attempts to stick to the curriculum high-stakes-tests end up reflecting only to a slight degree what was actually covered by the teacher in the classroom. Additionally Worthen (1993) highlights one serious consequence of basing crucial decisions on test scores. When schools were being held accountable in the 1970s and thereby required to demonstrate achievement via test scores, it was noted that, when issued the minimum acceptable standards of achievement, schools adopted these as the maximum competencies they were aiming for.

Schools basically aimed to satisfy only the set out standards and hardly attempted to raise performance beyond those minimal requirements. Obviously the quality of education is compromised in such a case and students are robbed of the opportunity to excel. Moreover, with new research encouraging multicultural classrooms it would be assumed that the creators of test instruments also consider the diversity of the individuals who sit these important tests.

Worthen & Spandel (1991) observe, however, that the tests from which high-stakes decisions are made are more often than not “racially, culturally, and socially biased” (p. 67). It comes as no surprise therefore that successful performance on such tests is not equal among all ethnic groups. The general aims of education, to facilitate inclusive classrooms, are being eroded in such tests. Standardized high-stakes-tests are renowned for being biased against ethnic minorities and the socially and economically disadvantage.

If the tests do not give students the same equal opportunity then obviously some children are being left behind and this goes against the goals of the federal and state positions on education. Obviously high-stakes-tests, in their current state, are harmful to the quality of education.


Worthen, B. R. (February 1993). Critical Issues that Will Determine the Future of Alternative Assessment. Phi Delta Kappan, 74(6), 444-454. Worthen, B. R. & Spandel, V. (February 1991). Putting the Standardized Test Debate in Perspective. Educational Leadership, 48(5), 65-69.