Friday, October 17, 2008

CESTL paper-High-Stakes Test & Learning

Effects of High-Stakes Tests
on Learning English Language Arts in Middle School

Wai King (Dorothy) Hung
EDCI 6304 Learning & Cognition
Curriculum & Instruction
School of Education
University of Brownsville, Texas
Spring 2008
This Paper was presented at the 2nd Conference of Elementary Secondary Teaching & Learning (CESTL) in April, 2008, Brownsville, Texas. If you have any questions or comments regarding this paper, please contact the authort directly at
Literature Review

One of the objectives of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act is to close the academic achievement gaps of the following subgroups of students: (a) economically disadvantaged students, (b)students from major racial and ethnic groups, (c) students with disabilities, and (d) students with limited English proficiency ( NCLB: Elementary & Secondary Education , 2002 ). The three main requirements of this federal mandate are: (a) standard-based curriculum for reading and mathematics, (b) annual testing of all students from grades 3 to 12, and (c) schools to be accountable for the levels of proficiency in these tests of their students.
In Texas, because of the consequences that come from a statewide accountability system, these tests have become high stakes affecting school districts, the schools, teachers, and students. Districts and schools that successfully meet the stated progressive objectives and close the achievement gaps will receive awards; otherwise, they are subjected to corrective actions or restructuring (Clarke, Shore, Rhoades, Abrams, Miao, & Li, 2003). All students are required to take the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) tests.
The consequences for students taking the tests are either promotion to the next grade level or retention depending on their results of these tests (Assaf, 2006). In middle school, students in sixth grade are required to pass TAKS reading and mathematics while students in the seventh grade take the TAKS tests in writing, reading, and mathematics. In order to graduate from middle school, students in the eighth grade are required to take the TAKS tests in reading, mathematics, science, and social studies.
As a response to high-stakes situation, teachers align their curriculum to the test preparation as well as spend more of their instructional time preparing their students for the tests. Teachers have also reported that preparing students for high-stakes tests have led them to deviate from creative, constructive, and productive instructional practices, and that they were unable to respond to students’ individual needs (Pedulla, Abrams, Madaus, Russell, Ramos, & Miao, 2003). Other studies (Cawelti, 2006; Clarke et. al.,2003 ; Thomas,2005 ; Waber, 2006 ) noted that while some students appear to exhibit problems involving higher executive functions such as metacognitive skills, a large number of students exhibited high test-related stress, boredom, reduction in their learning motivation , absenteeism, and vandalizing school property in some extreme cases.
In contrast, Assaf (2006) observed that some students feeling the pressure to pass the tests, wanted only lessons that would help them pass these tests. These students were not receptive to learning anything beyond what was required to pass the tests.

Statement of the Problem

In Brownsville, Texas, students take two types of high-stakes tests: the state TAKS and the district diagnostic tests. These tests serve the purposes of promotion to the next grade levels and evaluating students’ achievement and competency. The district diagnostic tests prepare students for TAKS and identify students who may need instructional remediation (Brownsville Independent School District, 2007). In some schools when students fail their high-stakes tests, the teachers are the ones who are blamed (Kohn, 2000; Paris, 2000; Thomas, 2005).
While many studies (Cawelti, 2006; Clarke et al., 2003; Thomas, 2005; Waber, 2006) have been conducted to explain the effects of high-stakes tests on classroom practices, their focus has been on the overall and general effects of high-stakes tests. Furthermore, little research has examined the effects that high-stakes tests have on teachers’ teaching and students’ learning of English language arts class in middle school.
Purpose of the Present Study

The purpose of this research is twofold: (a) to examine the effects of high-stakes tests on the teaching and learning of English language arts; and, (b) to test the effects of high-stakes tests on English language arts curriculum and standard in middle school.

Research Questions

This study will address the following two questions:

1. What are the effects of high-stakes tests on teaching and learning of English language arts in the middle school

2. What are the effects of high-stakes tests on English language arts curriculum standards?

Research Site

This research was conducted in a public middle school located in the Lower Rio Grande Valley, Texas. There are approximately 1,005 students in this school. The school is located in an area that is of low socioeconomic status. Approximately 96.1% of the student population is economically disadvantaged, 31 % is of Limited English Proficiency, and 64.8% of students are considered ‘at-risk’ students. The major ethnic group in this school of both teachers and students is Hispanic.

Research Participants

The teacher participant was selected based on the willingness of the seventh grade English language arts teacher who allowed the researcher to observe one of her classes. There are 22 students in this class: 13 boys and 9 girls. Besides the seventh grade teacher, there was, in addition, an eighth grade English language arts teacher who participated in the individual teacher interview. Both teachers and the students are Hispanics.

Data Collection

A qualitative research design using classroom observations and teacher interviews was employed for this study. Six classroom observations of the seventh grade English language arts class took place over a period of four weeks in February 2008. Each observation was conducted over a 45 minutes time-period. In an unobtrusive location within the classroom, the author audiotaped the whole class and took fieldnotes with specific focus on the teacher’s teaching approach, students’ behavior, and classroom environment.

Another research method was teacher interview. To gain a broader perspective of the research topic across the grades, the first teacher who was interviewed was the eighth grade teacher whose class the author did not observe. The second teacher was the seventh grade English teacher whose class the author had observed. Each interview lasted approximately one hour and fifteen minutes and were audiotaped and transcribed. The interview enabled the author to investigate the teachers’ perspective on the effects of high-stakes tests on teaching approach, students’ learning, and the teacher’s use of curriculum and standards.


Effects of High Stake Tests on Instructional Approach

The study found that high-stakes tests did not have negative effects on the teachers or their teaching approach. According to both teachers interviewed, the high-stakes tests had positive effects on them as teachers and on their teaching. Despite the sense of urgency, the teachers saw it as a challenge and motivation to prepare students not only for the tests but to be able to do it within a learning environment that was purposeful, meaningful, and relevant. As one of the teachers put it:

It challenges us to expand beyond what we are comfortable with and try to do something different for them….it’s fun for the kids, we do it for them. We do it because it is for them. As much as they can be exposed to. Whatever it is, they need help on.
Thus, in the seventh grade writing class, students wrote journals, poetry, and process writing in the narrative genre. Written assignment was given authenticity as the students wrote article and poem for submission to the local newspapers, Teen Speak or Ars Poetica.

Regarding the criticisms that high-stakes tests resulted in ‘teaching to the tests’, both teachers did not believe that practicing the tests was the best teaching practice. The overriding philosophy as explained by one of them was:

If you care about the kids and you are willing to give whatever it takes to give them the best education possible, they are going to learn my materials. You don’t need to do that (teach the test).

Instead of relying on supplementary test preparation materials, teachers employed creative and fun activities. Using the test writing objectives as guidelines, this teacher taught writing skills through cooperative learning strategies such as peer reviewing and small group activities. In one small group activity, the teacher had the students learnt the use of commas the fun way in an activity that was termed ‘Cutting Sentence Strip’. For this activity, groups of students were given different sentence strip. Each group had to cut up the sentence and regrouped it like a puzzle and to indicate using commas the separation of dependent clause from independent clause. This teacher would not use supplementary practice test materials because “that is putting too much emphasis on the test. They are NOT learning the test.”

One important contributing factor to the teachers’ positive reaction to high-stakes tests was the fact that the TAKS writing test brought into focus the need to emphasize the teaching of writing skills. Both teachers commented that students had entered middle school with poor or no writing skills, and that they had to teach writing objectives that should have been taught at the elementary levels. Since students were tested at fourth and seventh grades for TAKS writing tests, it meant that students needed to be taught how to write and to be able to do so grammatically and within a relevant context, meaningfully. As remarked by the seventh grade teacher, the TAKS writing test was actually a “good thing”

Effects High Stake Tests on Students’ Learning

The study found no positive effects of the tests on students’ learning. The negative effects of high-stakes tests on students’ learning were manifested in two different manners. For one group of students, reaction took the manner of disinterest while for another group, the negative effect of the tests were manifested in the loss of motivation for academic achievement and higher order learning.

Among the group of seventh grade students who reacted with disinterest towards the tests, these students did not exhibit or manifest signs of anxiety or stress. Some students did not appear to be interested or motivated to learn as they strolled into class and often took their time to start on the day’s activity. In one instance, after the teacher had returned a class test on the use of commas to the class, she informed the class that if they wanted higher or better grades, they could come in during lunch hour for a retest. Not many students took the permission slips from the English teacher that would allow them to come into her class for the retest. It would appear that not many took the invitation to do so.

An important explanation as given by the teacher was that the TAKS writing test at seventh grade was not a high-stakes test. Since seventh grade was not a promotion year, the students could still be given alternate promotion to the next level. The conditions for alternate promotion were that they passed the course work with an overall average of 65%, passed both the TAKS mathematics and reading tests, and attend summer school (BISD, 2006).

In contrast, the high-stakes tests had a different effect on students who were at eighth-grade. Unlike the seventh graders, students’ learning was driven by the test. The eighth grade teacher, who was interviewed, shared that some of her eighth graders work harder than usual because this was the promotion year for them. They needed to pass TAKS reading test if they were to be promoted to high school. Therefore, to help her students, this teacher set aside for a month or so, the language arts curriculum, and used her English language arts class to teach and help her students with the reading objectives.

For another group of seventh grade students who were high achievers and motivated to learn, the tests did not create a high level of stress within them. These were students, whom the teacher found had an intrinsic motivation to do well, and “whether there was a test or not, they would still want to learn.” While these students may not be driven by the tests to learn, they appeared to experience a negative ripple effect of high-stakes tests that considerably dampen their enthusiasm and motivation towards higher academic achievement and learning. The teachers, who were interviewed, felt that the tests and the emphasis on NCLB had created a leveling effect on learning. With so much attention given to at-risk students who “sucked out all the energy and attention”, the teachers “could not help the ones who are good to move further than what the others are allowing them.” So, some of the higher achieving students losing motivation, are not prepared to take on more challenging classes because they “don’t want to be challenged anymore.”

The study also found that across the grades, high-stakes had a negative effect on students’ learning. The emphasis and focus in preparing students at elementary grades for TAKS reading tests resulted in students who entered middle school not knowing how to write or produce grammatically correct sentences. The seventh grade teacher recounted that after reading written assignments with the apostrophes marked all over, she realized that her students did not know how to use the apostrophe. They thought that the apostrophe was to be used after every word that ended in ‘s’ or after every plural words. That the students could not use apostrophe properly or even articulate how it was to be used meant that the teacher had to teach them the concept that should have been taught at elementary schools.

Effects of High Stake Test on Curriculum and Standards

The study found that high-stakes tests had both positive and negative effects on the curriculum and standards. In Texas, the TAKS writing objectives are a set of six objectives that are based on TEKS writing objectives. The first two objectives test composition writing in the narrative genre while the other four tests editing skills.

When teachers teach the state’s curriculum and standards, they are also teaching the objectives of the tests. This is a positive effect as it meant that there is no dissonance between classroom practices and preparing students for the test. In the seventh grade classroom that the author observed, the teacher had prepared and displayed very prominently, colorful display of cards outlining both the TAKs and TEKS writing objectives. Furthermore, the teacher studied the TEKS and used it to understand and know the gaps in her students’ knowledge base. Since there were no provisions of appropriate textbooks or materials, in sourcing for materials either from teaching websites, teaching conferences, seminars, or from literary texts, the teachers had to constantly made reference to TEKS to ensure that instructional strategies and materials were in alignment with the state’s objectives.

Notwithstanding the alignment that exists between TEKS and TAKS, the negative effect of high-stakes tests on curriculum and standards is evident in the delimitation of the curriculum as it is applied in the class. While TEKS specifies and provides for a wide range of writing genres, writing, and grammar objectives to be taught, classroom teaching and learning is in actuality, focused only on the six TAKS objectives. This thwarts the aim of producing students who are proficient and exemplary in the use of the English language.


This research investigated the effects of high-stakes tests on the teaching, learning, and curriculum standards of English language arts at middle school. It must be noted from the outset, that observations and data were collected from seventh grade involved in the TAKS writing test. While it was stressful for the teacher being that this was the only year in the middle school when students are tested for writing, the seventh grade however was not a promotion year.

The high anxiety that some teachers had reported was not evident (Kohn, 2000; Paris, 2000; Thomas, 2005). One reason that could explain the lack of high anxiety towards the tests could be that even as they were aware that the tests might have some unintended consequences, these teachers were in agreement with the state content standards and supported the state mandated tests (Wang, Becket, & Brown, 2006). This allowed the teachers to turn their attention and energy to create and implement purposeful learning skills and experiences that students needed to become literate.

Regarding the lack of stress in these teachers, it is important to realize the influence of self-efficacy on the teachers. Both teachers saw the tests as a challenge. Being experienced and creative, the tests motivated and spurred the teachers to rise above the practice of teaching to the test and to create relevant, purposeful, and meaningful teaching and learning experiences.

Last, but not least, an important factor that appeared to have contributed to teachers’ low anxiety level was the fact that the teachers in this particular school had autonomy and control over the implementation of the curriculum and general teaching. This element of trust in the teachers’ professionalism was important as it freed the teachers to choose and use the most appropriate instructional strategies and materials that would meet the needs of their students (Kruger, Wandle, & Struzziero, 2007).

The lack of stress as observed in the students could perhaps be attributed to teacher’s behavior. Viewing the assessment process as dynamic, teaches used the tests scores as data to understand students’ needs and to shape instruction. Students were informed that tests scores were important in that it was used to assist them with their learning (Brimijoin, 2005; Supon, 2004). Instead of seeing the tests as the outcome of education, the test became one of the many tools that teachers used in the course of teaching literacy and producing students to proficient and effective in the use of the language across the curriculum.

An important consideration to account for the lack of stress in students could perhaps be found in the latitude and laxity of the district passing requirements for seventh grade .At seventh grade, students take the TAKS writing, reading, and mathematics tests. All that is required, at the very least, is that students passed two out of these three TAKS tests and maintained an average of 65% in coursework. The ease with which students meet these requirements would then explain the lack of stress that was observed in this particular group of students who did not choose to take seriously the consequences of failing the high-stakes tests (Mulvenon, Stegman, & Ritter, 2005).

Finally, regarding the effects high-stakes tests on curriculum and standards, since the state curriculum standards, TEKS are developed at the state level and are aligned with the TAKS objectives, one can infer that teaching the curriculum standards meant teaching the tests. However, this could be a positive thing because the TEKS writing objectives provided explicit expectations for students and schools in the area of writing. The curriculum and tests standards are designed to help students be effective writers across the curriculum. However, as pointed out by one of the teachers, the state curriculum standards for writing cover wide varieties of genres, writing objective, and grammar objectives, which the class cannot or did not explore because TAKS objectives would have them practice only one writing genre. This is supported by the oft-repeated criticism that points to the negative effect high-stakes tests on curriculum standards whereby teachers had to adjust and accommodate their curriculum and standards to fit the tests (Pedulla et al., 2003).


Despite the fact that this study is small-scale study, one may make the conclusion that the teachers have an important influence in determining the effects of high-stakes tests on the teaching and learning of English arts in the classroom.

Teachers with high self-efficacy coped and reacted differently to the high-stakes tests. They adopt positive approach to teaching which considerably alleviated high-test anxiety that they or their students may experienced (Mulvernon et al., 2005; Supon, 2004). In aligning the curriculum with the tests objectives, these teachers used appropriate literacy strategies and instructional design to teach more than the tests itself. In this respect, it is recommended that schools provide for professional development in two areas: (a) building and strengthening teacher self-efficacy and (b) strengthening the delivery service with creative and meaningful teaching and instructional design and strategies (Nichols, Young, & Rickelman, 2007).

Limitations and Future Research

This study had several limitations that limited the validity and generalizability of the findings. The first limitation is the small population that was involved in the study. Involvement of more teachers and classes would have permitted a more thorough investigation of the research topic across the grade level. Furthermore, future investigation should look into the effects of high-stakes tests in teaching and learning of reading at the eighth grade level, the level that the stakes are highest for both the teachers and students.

The second limitation is the time constraint, which limited the collection of data that could be analyzed. Although the author was able to investigate the research topic within the short period, the conclusions drawn may not be conclusive given the limited data. A longer period would have permitted extensive data and greater depth in the findings.

The third limitation is the effect the researcher and the investigation may have had on the students and teacher. In a class where both teacher and students are Hispanics, the author’s Oriental ethnicity may have aroused curiosity, which could have affected both the teacher and the students’ normal performance in the class. Since the teacher was aware of the research topic, there is reasonable doubt that this may have affected her teaching approach and the study’s findings.

The fourth limitation has to do with researcher’s bias. Since the researcher was both the instrument and the data collector, despite the care that was exercised to record and maintain detailed fieldnotes along with stringent self-analysis, the subjective element of the instrument could have influenced the findings and its interpretation. In addition, the researcher’s background as an Oriental from the Republic of Singapore may have filtered and influenced her understanding and interpretation of the study’s finding. Subjecting the study to peer review would minimize the effect this limitation has on the study.

Lastly, since the scope of this study did not include interviews with students, further investigation is warranted regarding the relationship between high-stakes tests and student anxiety and the effects it may have on the learning of English language arts. In line with this investigation, further research should also consider the ameliorating effects teacher’s self- efficacy have on the negative effects of high-stakes tests on classroom teaching and learning.


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Cawelti, G. (2006). The side effects of NCLB. Educational Leadership, 64(3), 64-68.

Clarke, M., Shore, A., Rhoades, K., Abrams, L., Miao, J., & Li, J. (2003) Perceived effects state-
mandated testing programs on teaching and learning: Findings from interviews with
educators in low-, medium-, and high-stakes states
. Boston: National Board on
Educational Testing and Public Policy, Boston College.

Henson, K.T. (2006). Curriculum planning. Long Grove, Illinois: Waveland Press Inc.

Kruger, L., Wandle, C., & Struzziero, J. (2007). Coping with the stress of high stakes testing.
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(2003). Perceived effects of state-mandated testing programs on teaching and learning:
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Interview protocol

Hi, ­­­­­___________, first, I would like to thank you very much for taking the time to talk with me today. I am doing research on the effects of high-stakes testing on teaching and learning, particularly in English language arts. I am particularly interested in your ideas on this topic. Everything that you tell me will be confidential and I will not attach your name to anything that you say or tell anyone else what you have told me. If I ask you anything that, you do not feel comfortable answering please feel free to tell me. Do you have any questions before we start?

Name: _____________________

School: Juliet Garcia Middle School

  1. Male/ Female Race/ethnicity (as defined by the teacher ________________
    Department in school: _________________ Position in School: _____________________
    Years teaching: _______ Years teaching in your current position: _____________

    Where and when have you taught?

    With so much talk about TAKS since NCLB, how much do you know about high-stakes tests?

    What do you think are the positive effects of high-stakes tests on teaching of English language arts (ELA)?

    What do you think are the negative effects of high-stakes tests on teaching of ELA?

    How have high-stakes tests affected your teaching? Can you give me some examples?

    How have high-stakes tests affected your motivation to teach? Why?

    What are your concerns about high-stakes tests?

    What in your opinion, should students be learning in ELA class?

    NCLB describes certain population of students to be under-achievers and that the achievement gaps should be closed. What is your opinion about that?

    How do you think high-stakes testing is affecting the students in general?

    What do you perceived to be the positive effects of high stakes tests on students learning of ELA?

    What do you perceived to be the negative effects of high stakes tests on students learning of ELA?

    What is your opinion of linking teacher’s accountability to the scores that students achieve in high-stakes testing?

    What are the resources that you use to help you plan your lessons?

    Do you use Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills ( Texas TEKS ) objectives when you plan your objectives?

    What is your opinion of the alignment of TEKS objectives with TAKS objectives?

    What is your opinion of ‘teaching to test’, a common criticism found in research findings concerning high-stakes testing?

    What is your opinion of materials such as C-Scope ?

    In your opinion, what are the solutions or alternatives to these concerns?

    Do you have anything to add about the high stakes tests?

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