Report Finds that High Stakes Testing is Harmful to Student Learning

“High stakes” testing in Australia is likely to have a negative impact on student learning according to a new study published by the Whitlam Institute. The study found consistent evidence in international research that high stakes testing is harmful to student learning, teaching, school curriculum and student well-being.

The study says that the national literacy and numeracy (NAPLAN) tests are now “high stakes” because school results are published on the My School website and are used by the media to create league tables. It reviewed international and Australian evidence of the impact of such testing.

It found that almost all of the literature reports harm done to children’s learning by high stakes testing. A narrowing of curriculum, a restriction in the range of skills and competences learnt by students and a negative impact on the ability of teachers to employ creative and engaging pedagogies are all cited in the extensive body of literature on the experience with high stakes testing.

The study found considerable evidence of the impact that high stakes testing can have on the quality of the learning experience of children. It says that evidence has emerged that such testing limits the development of the range of skills and literacies needed in the modern world, encouraging low-level thinking and promoting outcome measures rather than the intrinsic processes of learning and acquiring knowledge.

In the Australian context, the Queensland Studies Authority has stated that high stakes testing encourages methods of teaching that promote shallow and superficial learning rather than deep conceptual understanding and the kinds of complex knowledge and skills needed in modern, information-based societies.

Research also documents the narrowing of the curriculum by high stakes testing. Teachers come to focus on the areas in which students will be tested while reducing the proportion of class time devoted to curriculum areas not included in tests. The study says that there is some evidence in the Australian context of a narrowing of the curriculum as a result of high stakes testing.

International research has also found that these tests can have a negative impact on teacher pedagogies with a resultant degradation of students’ experience of learning. This is the result of a shift of focus from the needs of the child to the needs of the evaluation and reporting process.

In Australia, the recent Senate inquiry into NAPLAN testing and reporting received many submissions that raised concerns about schools restricting the amount of enquiry-based learning. Many submissions were also concerned that teachers have increasingly been ‘teaching to the test’.

There is also considerable evidence regarding the negative impact of high stakes testing on students’ well-being, including its potential to impact on students’ self-esteem and lower teachers’ expectations of children. There is also evidence of negative effects on service delivery and professional-parent relationships and stress, anxiety, pressure and fear experienced by students.

While detailed findings are not available for Australian as yet, similar concerns regarding NAPLAN have emerged from various sources, including a recent Australian survey of principals and teachers in independent schools, the NAPLAN Senate report and a recent Queensland Studies Authority report.

The Senate hearing into NAPLAN testing and reporting received a number of submissions from individual parents and schools outlining concerns regarding the labelling of students, demoralisation of staff in schools that appear to be underperforming and the negative impacts of the pressure to perform well on individual students in the high stakes testing regime. The Queensland Studies Authority has expressed concern at the capacity of full cohort testing to lower the self-esteem, self-image and long-term confidence of underperforming students, thus widening the gap between them and higher-achieving peers.

The study was done by academics from the University of Melbourne and the Melbourne Graduate School of Education and is the first in a longer-term research project which examines the impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families.

John Polesel, Nicky Dulfer and Malcolm Turnbull, The Experience of Education: The impacts of high stakes testing on school students and their families’, The Whitlam Institute.

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