The Impact of High Stakes Testing Policies on Minority and Disadvantaged Students

The Impact of High Stakes Testing Policies on Minority and Disadvantaged Students
The Impact of High Stakes Testing Policies on Minority and Disadvantaged Students


Policymakers gathered on Capitol Hill to hear policy and legal implications of research on the impact of high stakes testing on minority and disadvantaged youths. The forum, co-sponsored by The Civil Rights Project at Harvard and the American Youth Policy Forum, featured a panel of prominent researchers in this field. Joining co-directors of The Civil Rights Project, Gary Orfield and Christopher Edley, andMindy Kornhaber, Research Associate were Lauren Resnick, director of the Learning Research and Development Center, University of Pittsburgh; Linda McNeil, director of the Center for Education at Rice University; Gary Natriello, professor of education at Columbia University; and Jay Heubert, associate professor of education, Teachers College, Columbia University. This group’s individual research presents new data that challenges common assumptions and questions the wisdom of putting so much at stake on one measure—a high stakes test.

Forum Brief

According to Mindy Kornhaber, efforts to improve test scores have not always led to better teaching practices; substantive learning goes down and rote memorization increases. “This is not an attack on standards,” says Kornhaber. To reach higher standards, states and districts must ensure access to high quality teachers for all students, provide small class sizes especially in elementary education, expose students to examples of high quality work, offer multiple forms of assessment by teachers, community members and local experts, and ensure that all students can reach these standards.

“Testing is perceived to be an efficient way of assessing school quality, but it can be used as a barrier to graduation or educational advancement,” says Gary Natriello. Currently, there are 22 states that have tests as a requirement for graduation, so there is cause for concern in test-passing differentials by race.

Linda McNeil spoke of the “Texas Miracle” that declares Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) scores are increasing, however, she adds, “Tests are reducing the quality of education in all schools, but especially the Latino schools.” The system of testing ties a principal’s job to the school’s scores. This added pressure on principals pushes them to sacrifice a more diverse education for one that is easily graded on computer-scored, multiple-choice tests, and to deemphasize subjects that are not on the TAAS such as science and history.

Lauren Resnick spoke of the benefits of a standards-based system in contrast to a test-driven system. According to Resnick, a standards-based system demands expert instruction from teachers. In a standards-based system, teachers know the standards as do the students, and exams and the curriculum are aligned to the standards. Teachers and students gain recognition for meeting the standards and as much time and instruction are given as needed to meet the standards. The New Standards exams are being successfully used in some school systems across the country, including two school districts where minority populations are high: New York City Public Schools and Pittsburgh Public Schools. Resnick says, “A real standards-based system, when it is implemented correctly, is an excellent way to raise student achievement.”

According to Jay Heubert, there is overwhelming evidence that holding students back is bad for them. “There’s trouble in River City…with the rise of tying test results to ending social promotion,” says Heubert. English Language Program (ELP) students and students with disabilities are in trouble in the testing arena. Heubert warns, “Not passing tests equals not graduating [and that] equals trouble with the future and a higher probability of trouble with the criminal justice system.” He also adds, “You can’t punish students for what you haven’t taught them.” In his recommendations, Heubert asks us to reevaluate the use of tests, to use tests properly, to judge students by the scores of more than one test, and to do more research about how to improve test scores.

Christopher Edley offered his own recommendations on tests. Educators should stand behind good tests and their appropriate use, use tests as diagnostic tools, hold people accountable for properly implementing a test, and find a way to direct accountability where it is fairest—at the top. “Test scores are too often used to label kids rather than trigger intervention,” says Edley. He also adds that it is important to structure accountability so it is focused on those in power and where it will do the most good, “not on kids.”

According to Gary Orfield, high stakes testing hurts low-income and ethnic minority students and is linked to high drop-out rates among these groups, and African Americans and Hispanics are three to four times as likely to be retained than whites. “States should know who is being hurt by these tests,” says Orfield. He warns that tests are not standards, but that they can be “the punishment of innocent victims of unequal education.”

Unknown to many in the forum audience, a U.S. District Judge was expected to rule on a case involving the TAAS while the forum was in session. As forum presentations were ending, two men entered the room to announce the ruling on the MALDEF (Mexican American Legal Defense Fund) challenge to high stakes testing in Texas. Minorities have a higher failure rate on the test than whites and MALDEF contends that the test discriminates against minorities and should not be used to decide who graduates. U.S. District Judge Edward Prado of San Antonio ruled against MALDEF’s claim that the TAAS discriminates against minorities and that the use of TAAS could continue.

The bulk of questions and comments from the audience focused on strategies that schools and school districts are using to improve student achievement on state tests, such as early intervention, longer school days and years; how tests can be used to improve teaching and learning, and the importance of disaggregating test data for groups of students. Also, a number of comments were forcefully made that setting standards and high achievement for students is the only way to improve performance for all students, especially poor and disadvantaged students.

This information is from an American Youth Policy Forum held on January 7, 2000 on Capitol Hill, reported by Sarah Pearson.


Gary Orfield and Christopher Edley


The Civil Rights Project at Harvard

444 Gutman Library

6 Appian Way

Cambridge, MA 02138

(617)-496-4824, (617)-496-3095


Jay Heubert

Teachers College

Columbia University

525 West 120th Street, 212 B Main

New York, NY 10027



Linda McNeil


Center for Education

Rice University

P.O. Box 1892

Houston, TX 77251




Gary Natriello

Professor of Sociology and Education

Teachers College

Columbia University

Box 85

525 West 120th Street

New York, NY 10027



Lauren Resnick


Learning Research and Development Center

University of Pittsburgh

3939 O’Hara Street

Pttsburgh, PA 15260



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.