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Comprehensive Exam:

Curriculum and Instruction Leadership Specialization and Research

Part 1: Question E

In schools today there has been an emphasis on testing and accountability based off of a standard-focused curriculum (Cress & Holm, 2016). This has taken place because of policies handed down from the federal government. One such policy is the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act of 2001, which uses standardized testing as a means of improving teacher quality and holding local school districts accountable for student success or failure (Colombo, McMakin, Jacobs, & Shestock (2013). This has opened the debate on the ways we assess student learning and has shown the holes that exist in the current policy.

The problem in the current education policy is in the way high-stakes testing does not measure all aptitudes or intelligences that a student has. Couple the testing practices of NCLB with curriculum and you get a very narrow skill set that is focused on mathematics and language arts. At one time the test makers aligned their assessments to the adopted curriculum that a school district chose to use. As high-stakes testing became more the norm the curriculum became more aligned with what the assessments measured (Tanner, 2013). This has led to a number of problems within the school system from high levels of student failure to teacher turnover and burnout.

As NCLB began to take shape the test makers realized they needed to focus on creating more universal assessments that aligned with the curriculum that was now standards-based. The researcher Morgan (2016) suggests that, “This approach of assessment is particularly harmful towards disadvantaged students” (p. 67). In fact, policies such as NCLB have been ineffective in reducing student failure. The gap between affluent students and those in poverty has continued to increase (Nichols & Valenzuela, 2013). With more and more students failing and only a handful of student’s succeeding it would seem a shift in the current policy is needed. As disparities continue to grow for minorities and low-income students more needs to be done to create an equal assessment process; one that takes into account the different needs of the individual and not the whole (Goodman, 2014).

This has led to many school and community members examining alternatives to high-stakes testing and the problems that exist when applying it to all students across the board. It is important to remember that the use of standardized testing is not an effective way to assess student learning when used as a sole means of measurement (Morgan, 2016). The problem lies in the current educational programming and testing process that does not take into account the learning environment, teaching faculty, professional development, or the needs of students from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. By examining alternatives to high-stakes testing the student population would be better served and better assessed to show true learning gains or deficiencies.

Theoretical Frameworks

Bronfenbrenner (1977)

The researcher Bronfenbrenner (2006) suggests that transmitting knowledge is not the only function of education. Knowledge should be used to teach students new skills to critically think and creatively find answers to new questions that will arise over their lifetime. This should be the goal of education but unfortunately the current era of high-stakes testing based on a set curriculum does not allow for it. In school there exist many different cultures that influence how a child develops within the system. Without the right teachers, parents, or other students a child interacts with, high-stakes testing becomes a measure of futility.

Bronfenbrenner (1977) also suggests that children live in two different systems that influence their development. The child lives within a microsystem that has a direct influence in their immediate lives. This is where the importance of teachers, parents, and other students come into the picture. Children also live in within a macrosystem that is composed of  laws, values, religious ideas, and political policies. This macrosystem is what Bronfenbrenner suggests are the “blueprints”  that construct our microsystems and indirectly affects those who operate within it (p. 515). These microsystems are continually influenced by educational policies and practices which hold back more students then it helps to succeed.  

When applied to the idea of high-stakes testing Bronfenbrenner (1977) theoretical framework helps to provide some insight on current educational policies. For example, policies handed down from the federal government will directly or indirectly affect classrooms and influence its culture (students, teacher, parents) and the learning environment. These policies often serve as roadblocks or barriers to academic achievement.  For this research, Bronfenbrenner’s theory will guide the discussion on high-stakes testing based on a set curriculum and the numerous problems associated with it. It will also provide a framework to discuss alternative means of measurement that takes into account the entire microsystem and culture of educational institutions.

High-Stakes Testing and Educational Development

Though the public support for children in schools is high, given the past failures of the government the general public has not been a big backer of NCLB and its by-product, high-stakes testing. This is because the population that NCLB describes and tries to help has been more and more marginalized due to the assessment and accountability processes found within it. This has led to a loss of confidence by many in the public and NCLB is often viewed as a

 failure (Croft, Roberts, & Stenhouse, 2016). No one political group is to blame for the policies and their failures however, the ones most effected in the microsystem by the macrosystem are the teachers and students.

The use of alternative assessment methods does not mean eliminating standardized testing. Many countries use them successfully but in conjunction with other methods to help evaluate student’s academic progress (Morgan, 2016). When considering high-stakes testing it is important to remember what it truly is. The researchers Nicholas and Valenzuela (2013) surmise that it is the practice of combining consequences and test scores. There are consequences for students (retention, denial of diploma, humiliation) and for the teacher (job loss, potential bonus loss, poor evaluation) are real world problems and are tied to these assessments; this what defines them as “high-stakes”. This is an example of the macrosystem applying pressure to the microsystem and the way it manifests itself in the classroom. This pressure shapes the way that teachers teach and students learn.

The prime accountability measure being used in schools today to measure student learning is through high-stakes testing (Colombo, et al., 2013). This is problematic because a sole measure is not going to create the whole educational picture that a particular student may possess. The use of high-stakes testing only provides a glimpse of the student and does not account for other environmental factors such as a poor faculty, degenerating facilities, and an inconsistent home life. Every factor in a child’s life has an influence on their educational development. To assess all areas of growth is important in making the whole child, not solely one based off of an already narrowed curriculum and assessment process full of anxiety and threats (Segool, Carlson, Goforth, Von Der Embse, & Barterian, 2013).

To develop normally within the educational system a child must be able to subscribe to the notion that high-stakes testing is of extreme importance to them. Teachers and administrators reiterate threats about passing scores and how they will affect their lives. The authors Banks and Smith (2015) suggest that no matter the background of the student they feel increasing stress in schools and in particular with high-stakes testing. The authors examined high-stakes testing in Ireland and found that among the problems associated with the pressure to perform well, they also exhibited loss of confidence in themselves, constant strain, lost sleep, poor decision-making, and a lack of concentration. These testing symptoms are not in line with the normal development of a child and can impede academic and social progress, making high-stakes testing both inefficient and dangerous.  

The approach of NCLB and more specifically of high-stakes testing has been to prepare the child to take and perform well on standardized testing. It does not test them critically or allow them to apply their knowledge over a broad range of subjects (Moye, Dugger, & Stark-Weather, 2014). This does not allow for the normal development of the child within the realm of education because of the barriers to learning applied through policies and testing-practices. The student is not allowed to show how well they can perform in other academic and social areas that are necessary to prepare them for real world decision-making.

High-stakes testing is popular among some community members however, teachers have found the effectiveness of the policy to be limited in the scope. Many teachers complain that they feel as though they must “teach for the test” and that this has become a methodological strategy for instruction in schools today (Riley, 2014). This has made many test scores and any significant improvements in student learning outcomes suspect to criticism.  Many researchers and practitioners believe that the policy is in fact not effective and given that educators are teaching key aspects of the assessments during the course of their work day, invalidates any of the data that may support it.

When policies such as NCLB and the byproduct of high-stakes testing are used the pressures that the policies are creating are forcing both administrators and educators to teach what will be on the test, and not what helps a child develop normally within the education system. The researcher Stotsky (2016) defines teaching to the test as, “The practice of devoting extra time and attention in the classroom to the skills and knowledge that will be assessed on the district or state test” (p. 286). When time and attention are diverted from the needs of the student to the needs of the federal government the development of the child as a student is immeasurable impacted.

When educators “teach for the test” they are interrupting the normal educational development of their students. This another example of Bronfenbrenner’s (1977) theory on the Ecology of Human Development where the top macrosystem exerts pressure on to the microsystem. The macrosystem is using policies to affect those in the microsystem. These are teachers being subjected to pressures of policies such as high-stakes testing and are adapting by simply providing instruction on how to take the assessment. This impedes the normal development of the child by taking the needs of the learner and shifting them to the needs of the test (Sheffield, 2017). High-stakes testing has so many implications if the student does not perform proficiently it has become standard practice at most schools and districts to use teaching to the test as an instructional practice.

Evaluation of the Current Policy

Frank’s Framework

The Frank (1972) framework is an effective tool for evaluation of NCLB and more specifically it will help to show the adequacy of the theory, the effectiveness, and the empirical validity, that is hidden within the controversial policy and is known as high-stakes testing. By using this framework to evaluate the policy of high-stakes testing based on a set curriculum has to be examined before any alternative assessment practices can be studied.

Policy Effectiveness

When looking at high-stakes testing through the lens of the Frank (1972) framework certain ideas such as public support, and implementation timeframe must be examined to help evaluate the testing policy (Kubow & Possum, 2007). When looking at high-stakes testing, it is important to remember that the performance of the individual teacher and student has become vital to the policy. Educators are expected to comply with the policy and this has created teachers who have had the authority to teach in the past but now have their hands tied and must teach for the assessment.

Teachers have found the practice of high-stakes testing to be controlling and limited in the scope. As mentioned previously, teachers complain that they feel as though they must “teach for the test” and that this has become a pedological strategy in the classroom (Riley, 2014). This has made test scores and any advances in student learning subject to criticism. By using high-stakes testing scores are not as valid as they are made to seem. This helps to make the current policy at the very least ineffective.

Theoretical Adequacy

The second category of the Frank (1972) framework is in the adequacy of the theory behind high-stakes testing. According to the framework, there must be a strong theoretical foundation in the proposed policy reform. There needs to be a strong theoretical ideology behind the policy and that the claims of the theory must be theoretically sound as well (Kubow & Fossum, 2007). The theory behind high-stakes testing practices, has in fact changed from something created to improve the academic performance of students, to a policy designed to marginalize students that do not come from adequate learning environments that lack veteran teachers and do not address the needs of the individual student (Pinder, 2013)

Empirical Validity

The third category of the Frank (1972) framework is in the empirical validity that the reform policy may contain. When looking at a particular policy and the effectiveness of that the potential reform may have, it is important to remember that there must be empirical evidence to support it. Students are not the same when it comes to their participation in school and how well they perform on assessments (Marchand & Furrer, 2014). It has been theorized by Morgan (2016) that the empirical validity of the testing results are flawed and lack reliability. This is because of the pressure that is exerted from the federal and state governments for schools to show improvements. The success or failure of the classroom teacher has real world implications and can make it tempting to cheat or provide more help than is allowed.

The test-based accountability aspects of NCLB do not take into account that there are still inequalities found in our society, that makes any result empirically unfair in their interpretations.    The assessment-based nature of NCLB does not take into account that our society still contains levels of social stratification, and in fact creates an unequal relationship, between the affluent and poorest students found in our schools today (Nichols & Valenzuela, 2013).

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