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Virginia Journal of Education

On Point

High-Stakes Tests Are Poor Motivators

By Amy Petersen

There are two ways to motivate people: you can threaten and punish them, or you can value and empower them. Getting involved in the issue of standardized testing has shown me how which method you choose can have significant effects on people. Both methods can achieve a particular outcome, such as raising scores on a test, but each has drastically differing companion consequences. 

It’s my belief that motivating primarily through fear results in negative consequences that long outlive the achievement of a better test score. Cultivating a culture of respect and united purpose, on the other hand, produces lasting positive benefits to both the motivator and the motivated. Current education reform is heavily based on threats and punishment in the form of high-stakes testing. To me, that means it’s doomed to failure. There may be some small short-term gains in test scores, but the long-term consequences from eroding morale, high levels of stress, and restricted passion for learning have already started.

My awareness of the issues surrounding high-stakes testing came late in the game since, I must admit, I do not teach a subject with an SOL test. Last year, I attended some discussion meetings on the impact of standardized testing and was overwhelmed with compassion for all who were subjected to its mandates. The more I heard at these meetings, the more the changes I’d been noticing in my students and colleagues started to make sense. I brought the issue to the attention of our PTSA and one year later a movement has begun. With the help of dedicated parents, teachers and the VEA, the Citizens Standardized Testing Forum was born. The group has its own Facebook page and hosts regular meetings to help the community understand and react to the negative consequences of high-stakes standardized testing. 

In those meetings I have heard the laments of parents with special-needs children, the concerns of teachers who feel that testing now dominates their classroom, the frustrations of college professors with students who are hesitant to think for themselves, the challenges of employers having trouble finding workers who can problem-solve and think creatively, and the cry of students longing to be challenged in more meaningful and useful ways. All this has prompted me to react, not just in the role of advocate, but also in the way I work with my own students. 

To work out my frustrations, I have been making a conscious effort to respond with an equal but opposite reaction in my classroom. As the attacks on public education have increased, I have made it a greater priority to notice and vocally appreciate the merits of my students. I take pains to show that I care about each one of them and believe in their greatness. As mandates increase, I work harder to capitalize on the autonomy I still have left. I try to find more ways to employ the various talents of my students, so they feel valued. I also offer them more opportunities to take control of their own learning. As students are forced to spend more time testing, I have been decreasing the number of traditional tests I give, in favor of alternative assessments that teach the soft skills as well as the hard facts. When I am run down with boredom from proctoring tests, I dream up ways to make learning more fun and meaningful. As a result, my students have flourished, each in his or her own way. As a result, I end my days in the classroom energized and eager for the next class. Even though my focus is on the bigger picture beyond what is on a particular test, my students' performance has improved as a natural by-product. 

If you are feeling demoralized by standardized testing, I encourage you to battle the negatives with positive counter forces. Take control by evaluating yourself rather than letting the system do all the evaluating. Find areas where you can allow more creativity and autonomy for your students. Think of ways you can bring the love of learning back into your classroom. Make an effort to find the good in every student and heap on the praise. Establish ways for them to take their talents to a new level. Encourage them to take risks so they may learn from failure rather than learn to fear it. Prove that one can have high standards and hold others accountable through love just as easily as through fear, but with better results. Show what motivating through positive means looks like. Then share your methods with others and advocate for an educational system that leaves students and education professionals empowered and valued rather than full of fear and stress.

Petersen, a member of the Chesterfield Education Association, teaches Latin at Midlothian High School.


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