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Should High-Stakes Tests Drive the Curriculum? A Perspective from Michigan

by Deborah A. Cheves and Terry E. Parks
May / June 1998

Deborah A. Cheves, Principal, Edmonson Elementary School, Lamphere Schools, Madison Heights, Michigan.
Deborah Cheves’s interests include curriculum development and evaluation of students’ achievement.

Terry E. Parks, Director, St. Clair ISD Mathematics and Science Center, Port Huron, Michigan.
Terry Parks is interested in developing students’ abilities in the areas of problem solving and research.

This question is a paradox—which came first, the curriculum or the test? In Michigan, many teachers believe they have time to prepare their students only for the MEAP (Michigan Educational Assessment Program) tests, and they see the tests driving the curriculum. Their answer to the question is no. However, Michigan has had a clearly defined curriculum (objectives, standards, benchmarks, etc.) for years. In the minds of those who write the MEAP questions, the tests measure students’ achievement of the curriculum. They see the curriculum driving the tests and answer, “What?”

Any response must first define the term curriculum. Some educators use the terms curriculum and instruction as synonyms. For example, teachers who feel pressed to prepare their students for the MEAP may be responding to the question, “Should high-stakes tests drive instruction?” There is a segment of the education community to whom both questions seem strange. In their view, high-stakes tests have driven both curriculum and instruction for years. This group includes those who view Advanced Placement courses, AP tests, and the SAT/ACT exams as requisite to being admitted to selective colleges or to the fast track in a college curriculum.

Also, to students (and their parents) whose goal is a college or university education, every test is a high-stakes test. This includes classroom tests beginning in first grade and continuing through the ACT or SAT. To these students, each assignment is a critical piece of their development. Without performing to their own high standards, they know they will have little or no chance of achieving their goal. They know they must take the greatest number of challenging courses available and earn a high grade point average in the process. Being admitted to these courses means they must get into the advanced track. In mathematics this usually means algebra in eighth grade so they can take calculus in their senior year of high school.

For these students, every test is a high-stakes test. They expect the tests to drive both curriculum and instruction. Members of this group, and their families, are among those who are questioning some of the curricular and instructional reforms that seek to raise expectations for all.

Teachers of AP courses will tell you that they have a specific curriculum to “cover” and that the instructional mode expected is primarily the lecture/recitation format. They have also accepted the tests as driving instruction because they see their reputations dependent on graduating students who succeed on the tests.

As long as the people involved with curriculum and instruction were primarily teachers and schools of education, the issues that the question raises weren’t seen as a threat to public education. However, in Michigan and other states this is changing. With new laws tying performance on tests to accreditation, there is a new audience for the question—the school as an institution. In fact, until performance was linked with school funding, the term high-stakes tests was primarily used in reference to the ACT and SAT, which tend to affect individuals more than institutions. Now everyone in the education establishment is struggling with the question. Furthermore, with the link between funding and performance, many other questions, which have either not been asked or, at worst, been swept under the rug for the past century, are being raised.

One outcome of all this activity, at least in Michigan, has been support for districts, schools, and teachers to examine what they are teaching and, in the process, the instruction they are providing. The Michigan standards and benchmarks are an effort to create change, to bring local curricula in line with the recommendations of national subject-area specialists. This process has been encouraged in the design of the state’s curricula, which do not specify what is to be taught grade level by grade level. Thus, local districts need to translate the curriculum.

The state of Michigan also recognizes that teachers interpretthe curriculum through tests. The statements of outcomes for students become clearer to teachers when they understand what students are to be able to do as reflected in test items.

Whether our answer to the question is yes or no, the chance to examine what we are expected to teach and how we go about it is a growth opportunity all should welcome.

In all the discourse and debate surrounding “high-stakes tests,” we often lose sight of the fact that they came about as a means to increase and demonstrate students’ learning. These efforts are not going to stop until the United States sees achievement on a par with the best in international comparisons. Whether we see tests driving the curriculum or not, we must realize that raising achievement is the desired end. As we discuss this and other questions, let’s focus on how we can keep our means congruent with our desired ends.


 

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