High-stakes testing, uncertainty, and student learning

Audrey Beardsley, David Berliner

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

360 Scopus citations


A brief history of high-stakes testing is followed by an analysis of eighteen states with severe consequences attached to their testing programs. These 18 states were examined to see if their high-stakes testing programs were affecting student learning, the intended outcome of high-stakes testing policies promoted throughout the nation. Scores on the individual tests that states use were not analyzed for evidence of learning. Such scores are easily manipulated through test-preparation programs, narrow curricula focus, exclusion of certain students, and so forth. Student learning was measured by means of additional tests covering some of the same domain as each state's own high-stakes test. The question asked was whether transfer to these domains occurs as a function of a state's high-stakes testing program. Four separate standardized and commonly used tests that overlap the same domain as state tests were examined: the ACT, SAT, NAEP and AP tests. Archival time series were used to examine the effects of each state's high-stakes testing program on each of these different measures of transfer. If scores on the transfer measures went up as a function of a state's imposition of a high-stakes test we considered that evidence of student learning in the domain and support for the belief that the state's high-stakes testing policy was promoting transfer, as intended. The uncertainty principle is used to interpret these data. That principle states "The more important that any quantitative social indicator becomes in social decision-making, the more likely it will be to distort and corrupt the social process it is intended to monitor." Analyses of these data reveal that if the intended goal of high-stakes testing policy is to increase student learning, then that policy is not working. While a state's high-stakes test may show increased scores, there is little support in these data that such increases are anything but the result of test preparation and/or the exclusion of students from the testing process. These distortions, we argue, are predicted by the uncertainty principle. The success of a high-stakes testing policy is whether it affects student learning, not whether it can increase student scores on a particular test. If student learning is not affected, the validity of a state's test is in question. Evidence from this study of 18 states with high-stakes tests is that in all but one analysis, student learning is indeterminate, remains at the same level it was before the policy was implemented, or actually goes down when high-stakes testing policies are instituted. Because clear evidence for increased student learning is not found, and because there are numerous reports of unintended consequences associated with high-stakes testing policies (increased drop-out rates, teachers' and schools' cheating on exams, teachers' defection from the profession, all predicted by the uncertainly principle), it is concluded that there is need for debate and transformation of current high-stakes testing policies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
JournalEducation Policy Analysis Archives
StatePublished - Mar 28 2002

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Education


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