Areas of Expertise


Achievement Gaps
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Why Do the Achievement Gaps Exist?

  1. Cautions

Testing Has Its Limits: What, and How, Tests Should Measure

The Center on Education Policy cautions about the limits of using tests for measuring progress and offers suggestions on how best to use them.

This reports some of the ideas and findings from the following source:

Kober, N. (2001).It takes more than testing: Closing the achievement gap.Center on Education Policy. Retrieved April 4, 2002 from closingachievementgap.pdf (Adobe® Reader® PDF).
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To see other reports that originated from this same citation, go to the bibliography.

Tests are undeniably useful—they provide information about which students are not doing well and how far they are from proficiency. Yet testing has its limitations as well. Nancy Kober, author of the Center on Education Policy’s report,It Takes More Than Testing: Closing the Achievement Gap, identifies three important areas where testing has to be handled carefully.

  1. Tests should be gauged to what students are actually learning in the classroom.
  2. High-stakes testing must be implemented so as not to disadvantage minority students.
  3. Tests should only be used for the purposes they were designed.

Tests Should Measure Learning

  • Kober cautions that teachers and school officials need to keep in mind that tests are not measures of ability but of achievement. An ability is something inherent in a person; achievement is what a person can accomplish through work and dedication.
  • Testing standards should also be based on a coherent curriculum. Adopting standards without developing the curriculum to help students meet those standards is only piecemeal reform. Students should not be tested on subjects for which they have not been prepared.

High-Stakes Testing Must Be Fair

Kober argues that high-stakes testing must be fair for racial and ethnic minorities.

  • Improper use of test scores for high-stakes decisions (such as college admissions) can reinforce racial or ethnic inequalities. According to Kober, there is the danger of further disadvantaging minority students by not promoting them because of lower test scores. Since these lower scores are a result of a variety of social factors, they are not fair measures of a student’s achievement.
  • When tests are used for high-stakes decisions, policymakers have a special responsibility to ensure that such tests are not culturally biased. The author recommends that setting standards, and creating tests to measure those standards, should be accompanied by close monitoring of consequences and by support to help all students pass the tests.

Use Tests for the Purposes They Were Designed

  • When setting new standards, policymakers have sometimes used old tests to measure the new standard. Kober views this practice as undermining the purpose of testing. Using tests to measure things they were not designed to measure can compromise both test reliability and test validity as well as the test's results, Kober argues.
  • Based upon expert advice, Kober also recommends that multiple measures should be used in making decisions rather than just a single test. Particularly since such decisions can have major consequences on a students’ future, multiple measures are likely to be more accurate and fair, she suggests.
  • High-stakes testing should not encourage ineffective instructional practices. For instance, in some school districts teachers devote a great deal of time to developing students’ test-taking skills. While this may raise scores on high-stakes tests for a few years, Kober argues, it does not actually produce real gains in student knowledge. Moreover, skills that are useful but not tested (such as being able to lead a class discussion) may be neglected.

Nancy Kober and the Center on Education Policy conclude that the best way to respect these limitations of testing is to develop better, appropriate, accurate tests and educate people about how to interpret and use the tests.

Research Design: The report surveys test score data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), as well as from the SAT and ACT college entrance exams. Policy suggestions are taken from studies of school districts in North Carolina, Texas, Michigan, Indiana, Maryland, Connecticut, Delaware, and Rhode Island.


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