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High-Stakes Tests

by Judy Bodenhausen
May / June 1998

Judy Bodenhausen teaches algebra 1 to language-minority students, geometry, and BC calculus at Berkeley High School in Berkeley, California, a large, diverse, urban high school. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a codeveloper and national presenter for Thinking Mathematics, and a coauthor of a college-preparatory mathematics precalculus book. 

High-stakes tests do affect my classroom. The AP, proficiency, Golden State (California honors exam), SAT, ACT, AHSME, and AIME tests have some positive effects. Our school’s high scores give recognition to our students and school and protect teachers from those who don’t like what or how we teach (which is NCTM Standards-based).The AP test forces the pace and rigor in calculus. The state-required proficiency test protects us from being unjustly accused of graduating innumerate students.

The tests also have negative effects on both curriculum and assessment. In calculus, I can’t teach hyperbolic and circular functions together; the explorations into their commonalities and differences must come after the AP. I must teach topics whose value I question, given the time I have available. In geometry, I have to change an “evolving mastery” curriculum so that topics on the Golden State are covered before the exam, although this renders useless some of the built-in revisiting of topics. I also have to spend math time teaching reading (our district’s proficiency test contains words that few of our immigrant students, who are 25 percent of our student population, know). I use more multiple choice than I would prefer and I have to use some trick questions so that students learn how to deal with them.

It gets worse: tests take time from teaching. I will lose a whole week so that I can help administer California’s standardized test—one that is not correlated with the new curriculum standards (awful though they may be). I must spend time considering and discussing with colleagues how much to incorporate or ignore what the tests test. I must face media criticism when some students do poorly on this inappropriate test, although most low achievers are transients who have been in our district only a short time.

I must also face the fact that the adoption of such a test is yet another confirmation that the public does not really consider me a professional. That knowledge is wearing and sometimes makes me wonder whether I want to continue teaching.


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