Category Archives: Standards and Testing

Family Background and Student Achievement – An Example

Student achievement is significantly influenced by non-school factors.  While demography is not entirely destiny, it is well-known that academic achievement is correlated with factors like the income of parents, family structure, and the level of education achieved by parents.  The Coleman Report from 1966 is credited with this discovery.

So let’s take this insight and see how it can help us understand student achievement and school performance.

Let’s compare two area schools, Pocopson Elementary and Greenwood Elementary.  Pocopson is the largest elementary school in UCFSD;  Greenwood is just across Route 1 from Longwood Gardens, and is in the Kennett Consolidated School District.  On a map, the catchment area for Greenwood runs up against UCFSD boundaries.

Take a look below at the academic achievement stats for both schools in 20 13-14.   Question:  which school is doing a better job educating its students? Continue reading

Schools Matter for Student Achievement, Don’t They?

Ever since the Coleman Report was published 50 years ago, it has been well-known that student achievement is impacted mostly by many factors outside the classroom.

If you want to predict student performance, non-school factors will explain a majority of the variability in observed outcomes.  (The ‘outcomes’ include how much a student knows, whether they will be admitted to a competitive college, how much additional education they will pursue, and how much they will earn in their future career.)

Which non-school factors have the most explanatory power?  Researchers have found that these factors go a long way in explaining much of the performance differences between students: Continue reading

What’s at stake with Testing (Part 5 – Conclusions)

In the past few weeks, I have examined whether the PSSA deserves to be call a high-stakes test.   My conclusions have been:

  • The PSSA does not impact student grades, promotion, placement, or college admission. (see post)
  • For our teachers, student test scores do not have a detectable influence on the outcome of the teacher evaluation system, nor on teacher pay, employment, or individual reputation. (see post)
  • And for school districts, the PSSA impacts neither finances nor the level of state involvement in local school governance. (see post)

The PSSA does impact the reputation of a school community, through the School Performance Profile.   But school districts have always had reputations, and parents have always sought out good school districts in which to raise their kids.

If the evidence demonstrates that the PSSAs are low stakes tests, why does the “high stakes” label continue to be used?  (Examples here and here and here.)   What is going on?
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What’s at stake with Testing (Part 4 – Schools)

In my previous posts on the stakes of PSSA testing, I argued that the stakes were low for students. (see part 2)  Last week, I made the case that there is also little at risk for teachers. (see part 3)  So where are the “high stakes” on PSSAs?

Perhaps there are high stakes for schools and/or school districts.  Let’s look at the four main ways a school district could be impacted by the PSSAs:  levels of state funding, amount of state oversight and regulation, consequences to administrator employment, and impact on local property values.

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What is at stake with Testing (Part 3 – Teachers)

Tests with “high stakes” are those that have significant consequences (positive or negative) for students, teachers, or schools.  In my first post, I linked the origin of the phrase to the accountability movements of the late 1990s and 2000s.

Next, we looked at the PSSA and the stakes for students.  My conclusion was that the stakes for students are low.   Today we look at the what our educators have at risk with PSSAs.

PSSA – Teacher ‘Stakes’

For our teachers, there is the potential for real impact.  If teacher performance is linked to PSSA results, then it is possible the a teacher might experience financial, career, and reputation impact from the PSSAs.   But to determine the actual impact, we need to understand the inner-workings of the our “teacher effectiveness system”. Continue reading

What’s at stake with Testing (Part 2 – Students)

In my first post on “What’s at Stake with Testing”, I defined “high stakes”, and looked at the history of the phrase “high stakes testing”.


The term “high stakes” refers to any situation where there are large consequences — upside and downside.  Usage of the phrase “high stakes” in the mid-20th century most often referred to gambling … a situation where the player can lose everything ‘staked’, but also reap outsized rewards.james bond

We can visualize the ‘stakes’ of any situation, including gambling and testing, using a 2 x 2 matrix.  “High stakes” situations are those where the potential gains and losses are large — the upper right quadrant.

stakes matrix

In the next three posts we will look at the PSSA, and the consequences of test results on students, teachers, and schools.   Up first:  our students. Continue reading

What is “at stake” with Testing?

Image result for huhI 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.”

Image result for high stakes pokerFrom 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.)

high stakes ngram 1960 1990


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.

high stakes ngram 1990 2008

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.


Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 3)

“Teaching to the Test” has become a political slogan with negative connotations, but teaching to standards, against which students are later assessed, has long been considered a good teaching practice.

In my previous posts I looked at practical and theoretical support for ‘teaching to the standards’ (Part 1), and the reasons why ‘teaching to the test’ has acquired momentum as a negative slogan (Part 2).

Today we will look at a way forward:  how should our schools respond to state standards and mandated testing?

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Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 2)

In my previous post I showed that “teaching to the test” has long been considered a sound instructional practice.  When it comes to teaching AP history or a foreign language, it seems obvious that instruction seeks mastery of a  specific curriculum, and that mastery is measured by a valid assessment.

How has “teaching to the test”, a term once used favorably among educators, morphed into a political slogan charged with negativity?   Continue reading

Opting In: Teaching to the Test (Part 1)

“Teaching to the Test” has become a catch phrase in the testing debate. And like many political slogans, it is designed to evoke a certain (negative) emotional response from us.  But if we carefully examine the ideas behind “teaching to the test”, we may find our negative response to be unwarranted.

“Teaching to the Test” is used today mostly in a derogatory way. According to the critics, standardized testing drives schools to “teach to the test”.  And if teachers must “teach to the test” then they will have to sacrifice other important learning objectives. This may happen at a macro-level if schools sacrifice Social Studies, Art, and Music on the altar of higher test scores in Math and English Language Arts. Or it may happen in the classroom as rote memorization and pre-test drills crowd out higher-order learning and project work that would better serve our students. Or so goes the argument.

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