By Isaac Butler
Today’s Morning Edition on NPR contained a brief segment about high stakes testing in the age of No Child Left Behind. Thanks to the law, children are being tested more than ever, and the results of those tests matter more and more. The quick segment was around what the potential draw backs are of high stakes testing (teaching to the test, dehumanizing your students) vs. the reality that we live “in the age of data.”
The link above also explores some ways that we could replace our current high stakes testing regime with one that is less intrusive and more accurate. All of these are good ideas. I don’t want to dehumanize students, and teaching to the test is a real problem. I believe data is important. At the same time, this conversation left out the most important reason why high stakes testing is so problematic: it’s inaccurate, particularly when it comes to measuring the knowledge and performance of women and African Americans.
Why? Well, it’s because of stereotype threat. As we discuss in more detail here and in our recent report, stereotype threat is the name we give the phenomenon where concern about confirming a negative stereotype about your identity group impairs your performance. For women, stereotype threat often impacts performance in STEM fields. For African Americans, it can affect testing results more broadly.
Stereotype threat’s impact is so serious that simply moving the identifying information from the beginning to the end of a high stakes test can improve performance. As documented in The Science of Equality, Volume 1, stereotype threat leads “conventional measures of academic performance [to] significantly underestimat[e] the ability of members of stereotyped groups…. The size of this gap—0.17 standard deviations (62 points) on the SAT—is significant and is highly likely to be an underestimation.”
The debate over the value and purpose of high stakes testing is a necessary and vital one for our nation to have. But we must have it in a way that acknowledges that high stakes tests have particular downsides for certain students, and that even if we continue relying on more and more high stakes tests, reformation of test practices is direly needed.