I don’t recall when I first heard the phrase, but I do remember the cognitive dissonance I felt upon first hearing it. The words implied something I was uncomfortable believing. And to resolve that dissonance I set out to learn more about it: “high-stakes testing”. What is it? What does it mean? Is testing in our schools really a high-stakes activity? And for whom? And under what circumstances?
“High Stakes” in the English lexicon
What are ‘stakes’? And what, therefore, are ‘high stakes’? Let’s consult the dictionary (a research method I frequently used in middle school!) Stakes are the amount wagered, or one’s monetary interest or share in a venture. And, high-stakes describes “a situation that has a lot of risk and in which someone is likely to either get or lose an advantage, or a lot of money.”
From 1960 to 1990, the adjective phrase “high-stakes” was most often used in reference to gambling. Google Ngram, which counts the frequency of words uses in all printed sources, shows us that eight of the top ten most frequent uses of “high stakes” in this period were related to wagering (poker, gambling, games, bingo (!), card games, etc.) This usage continues today. For example, I saw an advertisement on a sports website the other day for “high stakes fantasy football”. This usage makes sense, as gambling is a win/lose proposition and usually an all/nothing outcome. If you wager on a hand of cards, you either lose it all or walk away with much more than you came with. (Perhaps this element of risk and highly-variable outcomes is part of the appeal of gambling.)
In the 1990s, the phrase “high stakes testing” broke into the top 10, and within a few years, it rocketed to the top of Google Ngram charts. By 2008 six of the top 10 uses of “high stakes” were in reference to testing and accountability.
What caused the usage explosion? In 1998 Louisiana implemented standardized testing, with an extra kicker. They would use the test results with fourth and eight graders to stop the practice of ‘social promotion‘. If the test was not passed, students would be held back and given extra help. A number of other states quickly followed in the footsteps of Louisiana.
In 2002 No Child Left Behind was passed by the Federal Government, mandating the annual testing of 3rd – 8th graders, with the aim of ensuring all children receive a good local education. Holding back students was not a feature of NCLB, but there were accountability provisions for schools not making suitable annual progress. The term “high stakes testing” emerged as a way to describe these accountability systems.
What is “at stake” with testing today?
In the U.S. today, the “stakes” of testing are not always consistent from state to state. And it is not always easy to determine what the rules and consequences truly are in a given jurisdiction. Moreover, the stakes may be different for each actor in the school system: students, teachers, and districts.
In Pennsylvania, there are two exams which are administered by law: the PSSA, and the Keystones. These compulsory exams are the cornerstones of the state accountability system. Therefore, this is where we should focus our attention to understand how much is at stake.
I will start with the PSSAs. In my next three posts, I will examine what is at stake for students, teachers, and schools.